The Times (of London) Book Review of Free Food for Millionaires

By Melissa Katsoulis July 28, 2017

IF YOU DON’T KNOW YOUR kimbop from your bop, and have never tasted the delights of pâte à choux cream puffs with hong cha, you may never have considered the fact that although there are more than 2 million ethnic Koreans in America, their arrival on the mainstream cultural scene is long overdue. It is a good 40 years since the diaspora got going, so what – if not producing novels, films and music – have they been doing all this time?

The short answer, according to the New York-based writer Min Jin Lee, is laundry. That’s the business of her fictional couple, Joseph and Leah Han who, like countless others in their community, have worked themselves to the bone to get Manhattan’s whites whiter, while saving every penny to give their two daughters a good education.

One of their daughters is willowy Tina, a classical Korean beauty and virginal med-student, and the spit of her young mother. The other – the book’s protagonist – is Casey, a decidedly less traditional sort. Strong of limb and firm of mind, she has been indulging in fornication, cigarettes and subversive thoughts of not becoming a lawyer for years.

The novel opens around the Hans’ kitchen table in Queens, with Casey and her embittered, Korean-riches-to-American-rags father at loggerheads. Casey, fresh from Princeton, is idly wondering whether to look for a job or apply to graduate school. This shilly-shallying, and its attendant rejection of the time-is-money ethos, drives her father wild, so he does what he always does and starts telling the heartbreaking story of his final leave-taking from his poor mother in Korea. For some reason, tonight Casey decides to speak her mind, and she lets rip with details of her own tough journey: how at college she “had kids step away from me like I’m unwashed after I tell them you manage a dry-cleaner . . . people who are supposed to be your equals look through you like you were made of glass and what they see inside looks filthy”.

So her father beats her up. So she leaves home. And so begins her bittersweet adventures with lovers Waspy and Korean, jobs in banking and in clothes shops, role-models young and old and, always lurking beneath the surface, a dark desire that dare not speak its name: what she really, really wants is to make hats for a living.

But first, she throws herself in to corporate life, just to check it’s as soulless as she fears. At the investment bank, Kearn Davis, she meets men who make Tom Wolfe’s masters of the universe seem like progressive wee softies. When they close a deal, vast feasts of exotic foodstuffs are ordered in on the company account. Casey holds back politely while her millionaire colleagues load up their plates with free food as if they’re starving. She sleeps with, cheats on and is betrayed by various white-collar love-criminals, but only Umu, a sweet Korean-American of whom her parents might just approve, really makes her feel good. However, he has a not-so-sweet secret habit that is incompatible with being a good boyfriend.

After a period of abstinence from family life, Casey starts to see her mother again, and through Leah Han’s timid, uncomprehending eyes, yet another layer of Korean New York is revealed. At her beloved church, Leah is more than just a laundress in a homemade winter coat. She is Deaconess Cho, the one with the angelic voice. If she is not singing hymns and arranging choir practice, she is out visiting the sick, attending weddings and preparing food for festivals. But one day she returns from visiting the impressive new choirmaster, Charles Hong, on whom she has an innocent crush, and Casey realises that something has changed in her. Casey is changing, too, in her attitude to the Church Elders, some of whom, she realises, could be abusing their power. When one commits a startling transgression, she attacks him with a disrespectful ruthlessness that her father would never have been able to display.

Intergenerational fault-lines intersect with those of race and gender to create new worlds of possibility for Lee’s heroine, and ultimately she surprises herself with how much freedom she has. The girl making trouble at the dinner table in Book 1 (“Works”) is, by Book 3 (“Grace”), a woman who dares not only to dream, but to try making hats instead of millions. Because, for some reason, hats make her happy. And although Mr and Mrs Han don’t know it in the same way that she does, that is what leaving Korea was for.

This big, beguiling book has all the distinguishing marks of a Great American Novel: brilliant set-pieces (the golf club, the trading floor, the janitor’s room, the cosmetics counter); an outsider/ insider point of view; and a complex, modern voice that seems to speak more clearly than most.

Most importantly, Lee shows that the core values of this particular community are matched exactly in the mainstream culture. Traditions – fetishised because half-forgotten – of charity, gift-giving, churchgoing and family life are what hold both groups together. When they work they work like magic. But Lee is a realist and, as her novel demonstrates, men and women – wherever they come from – still have a lot to learn. Perhaps, this remarkable writer dares to wonder, they should try learning together?