Casey Han is in pursuit of the American Dream --- almost. She loves both money and prestige but is unable to think of a rewarding way to earn either one. She defies the wishes of her working-class parents by deferring her acceptance to law school. The owner of the department store where Casey works can't understand why she won't let her pay for business school. Casey herself doesn't know why she can't keep selling hats behind a counter --- until she maxes out her credit cards on thousand-dollar suits.
The plot of FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES is reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser's SISTER CARRIE when it reads, "Feeling poorer than she'd ever felt, she craved every bit of luxury and feared never having any more, and what made it worse was that she was ashamed of wanting it so much, to consume it, to incorporate it somehow into her body. She didn't want to feel poor anymore." In this modern-day novel, however, the Korean-American protagonist lives in New York City and keeps a copy of SISTER CARRIE by her bedside. Casey lives with boyfriends but is not a kept woman. She is a rags-to-riches hopeful, trying to earn her way to something meaningful without being dependent upon anyone.
Casey's life takes center stage in this novel, but her story is not the only one that's told. Friends and family members are also portrayed in these pages --- not simply through Casey's eyes, but through the eyes of an omniscient narrator. Min Jin Lee gets into the heads of a dry cleaner operator and a Julliard alumnus, an aging bookstore owner and a stockbroker on Wall Street. The author changes hats so effortlessly and frequently that we are able to know all sides of each story as it is told, often agreeing with the opinion of one character until that of their antagonist is revealed.
It is obvious from FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES that Lee doesn't believe in black and white definitions of good and bad, moral and immoral. Her characters are one big jumble of mixed-up desires, often finding relief in unconventional love affairs. Girlfriends leave boyfriends, husbands leave wives, and friendships emerge from unexpected places. Casey is the link to all of these storylines, floating between them as an ungrounded observer. She believes herself unworthy of being any type of heroine to those in her circle, yet her genuine involvement in their lives helps shape their individual futures.
It is this feeling of unworthiness mixed with a strong will that makes Casey Han such a lovable character. We're reading about a flawed girl who doesn't have all the answers, but who nevertheless forges ahead in her crazy hats and pack-a-day habit. She pursues and retreats both in career and love --- sometimes winning, sometimes striking out. But when she does come up empty, she picks herself back up again, and --- almost in spite of herself --- her story goes on.
FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES is about the fine line between sacrifice and exploitation, and finding fulfillment in a dubious world. The characters wrestle with conflicting emotions inside their own souls and decide which one will lead them to happiness. Sometimes the path is long and winding, but in the end it's worth every page.
Reviewed by Shannon Luders-Manuel on January 22, 2011
Free Food for Millionaires