COMPETENCE CAN be a curse. As a capable young woman, Casey Han felt compelled to choose respectability and success. But it was glamour and insight that she craved. A Korean immigrant who’d grown up in a dim, blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, she’d hoped for a bright, glittering life beyond the workhorse struggles of her parents, who managed a Manhattan dry cleaner.
THE MORNING HENRY EVANS stoppedby my office to tell me to go to Chicago, I was in the middle of my chapter-a-day habit: still in the Book of Hosea, much to my dismay, still in the Old Testament after years of dogged reading.
My husband looked so happy. “That’s great,” he shouted, then reached over to hug me, but stopped when he saw my face. My sparsely filled eyebrows must have been furrowed again, giving me away. The skin around Christopher’s brown eyes crinkled with worry. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you happy about it?” After all, it wasn’t an accident. We’d been married for three years and we’d both agreed recently to start a family.
There has been a great deal of froth lately about how “God Is Not Great” and how religions have made a rot of peace. The argument is fizzy yet hardly new: The world is a mess, and it has become so through those who believe in God. Well, fine.
When I was growing up, my mother always earned money. In Korea, she taught piano to the local children, and in America, she worked alongside my father at their small wholesale jewelry shop in Manhattan. When I married my husband, I was a first year corporate lawyer and he was a junior salesman at a bank. I made more money than he did. Two years after lawyering, I quit to write fiction. He became the sole breadwinner. This was in 1995. We didn’t have much left over after we paid the mortgage on our tiny apartment, and my husband had to take lunch to work, and I refused to meet friends from my old job for a drink because I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn’t afford my share.
When I was growing up in Korea, my dad was a marketing executive—whatever that means. The story went that he used to up and quit his jobs because of his temper. My mother was the local piano teacher, and she brought in the steady pay. She had a number of students. The piano lesson tuition was paid in cash, won notes tucked into small white envelopes. Every Christmas, my little sister Sang and I had to go to our uncle’s house and keep out of the way while our mother hosted the year-end party for her students. My older sister Myung got to go to the party with cake, ice cream and presents because well, she was older, and she was also a student. No, I’m not bitter. My family immigrated to Queens, New York in 1976 when I was almost eight. When I think back to our small house in Seoul, I recall that piano room with its thin door closed, a neighborhood kid plunking away at the keys and my mother’s gentle instructions. Even when there were no students to teach, there was always music playing in the house—Hayden, Chopin and Beethoven. I like all sorts of tunes, but the stuff that makes me well up are the sonatas.
On page 99 of Free Food for Millionaires, my main character Casey Han is smoking on the roof of her friend Ella Shim’s apartment building. It is Sunday morning, and Casey can’t decide whether or not she is going to accompany Ella to church. From the roof, she catches a glimpse of Ella’s cousin, Unu Shim who has just moved into the building across the street. Her cigarettes smoked, Casey goes downstairs to Ella’s apartment and tells Ella that she will go to church after all. Ella is horrified, because though she had wanted Casey to come to church with her and her fiancé Ted, Ted has just told her that he informed Casey’s ex-boyfriend Jay that Casey is staying at Ella’s apartment. Casey does not want Jay to find her, and Ted knew this. Ted has betrayed Ella’s confidence, and now, Ella has to conceal something from her friend Casey as they head off to church. Presently, Unu will meet them after church ends, and he will witness Casey and Jay’s first encounter since Jay’s sexual betrayal of Casey.
In a lifelong struggle with her shape that spans relationships, career changes, and now a move halfway around the world, Min Jin Lee charts the seismic shifts in her life by the numbers on the scale.
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP in Elmhurst, New York, it was a special day when I had enough coins for an Annabelle’s Rocky …
Sex, Debt, and Revenge: Balzac’s Cousin BetteBy MIN JIN LEE. Not too long ago, my friend Harold told me that if he didn’t have to earn a living, …
Six days a week, my parents sold Mexican silver earrings to street peddlers for $1.50 at their cramped wholesale jewelry store in Manhattan. Every night, my mother rushed home to Queens to fix delicious Korean suppers from the meat and produce on sale at the Elmhurst Key Food supermarket. Then, in 1981, about five years after we immigrated, my father decided that knowing how to butter bread properly should be as much a part of his children’s education as algebra and spelling. He allowed me, a precocious 12-year-old, to select one fancy restaurant to study each year. On the appointed day, the Lee family would waltz into the likes of Lutèce or Le Cirque.
My favorite novel of 2010 would have been my favorite novel of 1993 — if only I had known about it. At the time, Saul Bellow was not on Twitter but even his lavish quote for Tony & Susan, originally published that year, failed to sell enough copies of the book to keep it in print. So in an unusual eco-feat of arts recycling, Tony & Susan is being republished, giving it a much-deserved second life.
March 11, 2011, fell on a Friday, the day I run errands and go to the market. Until 2:46 p.m., about an hour before my thirteen-year-old son, Sam, would return home from his international school in Chofu, a suburb of Tokyo, it had been a good day. Once in a rare while in the life of a writer struggling on her sophomore novel, it’s possible to achieve a state of semi-contentedness by producing a few decent pages, and that morning was a halcyon interlude in my otherwise grumbling condition. After printing out my day’s work, I tidied the house, raced to the bank, paid my utility bills, then mulled over what to make for dinner for Sam and my husband, Christopher.
I had already failed at two novel manuscripts. Publishers had rejected my first manuscript, and I rejected the second, because it was not good enough to send out. I was 32 years old and beginning my third novel.