Korean American tale details coming of age

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

A good option for a summer-paced holiday read.

Min Jin Lee
Harper Collins


Korean-American Casey Han lives in New York with her parents and younger sister. She is newly graduated from Princeton, studying finance, and is now at a loss as to job direction. She works part-time in a store making and selling fine hats, and while she enjoys parading Audrey Hepburn-style in her weekends, her life needs a bit more of a challenge.

Casey’s younger sister is conservative and demure, and will follow the path her parents plan for her. As immigrants, her parents have had to settle for a new life of managing a Manhattan dry cleaners’ store, but have greater hopes for their children’s education and futures. Her parents hold traditional Korean values: the much-older Joseph expects the upholding of Confucian standards in his household. He is the patriarch and must be obeyed, having grown up in hard times, selling kimbap on the streets of Busan. His young wife Leah is a good Christian woman, never questioning her husband’s decisions and even standing by as he doles out punishment on the wayward Casey. The latter, however, has had enough of trying to please her parents as well as be comfortable in her own Korean-American identity, and strides out angrily on her own, setting up painful family dynamics which carry on for the course of the novel.

Free Food for Millionaires is Lee’s debut novel, first published in 2007. It is now available for the first time here, and, at over 500 pages, it feels epic. We mostly follow Casey as she seeks guidance in job, career, love and friendship, with all the ups and downs accompanying this, as well as a secondary plot line involving her mother.

While this is a coming-of-age story for Casey, it is also similar for her mother. Leah has been married and a mother since she was young, in a life of little variation, living in their Van Kleeck St, Elmhurst apartment for 17 years and following a repetitive daily routine. She is fearful of change or even personal expression. Her main hobbies revolve around the church and singing hymns. However, lives are about to be thrown into chaos.

Lee’s novel is hugely lengthy, requiring a commitment on the part of the reader. Characters and plot lines are handled with ease though, as she clearly maps the decisions, angst, and false turns of a young woman, as well as those of her mother. Drawing on her own experiences as an immigrant, Lee’s work is solid and convincing. She portrays the hardships faced by a young woman and immigrant, and the prejudices faced at every turn. Given the length, Free Food for Millionaires would be a good option for a summer-paced holiday read.

Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of Free Food For Millionaires, by Min Jin Lee, to give away courtesy of Harper Collins. For your chance to win a copy, email playtime@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email and ‘‘Free Food’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, December 19.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, Set Me Free, by Salvatore Striano, courtesy of Text Publishing: Lisa Kun and Garth Johnstone, of Dunedin, William Christie, of Gore, Francis Thompson, of Oamaru, Shona Wallace, of Alexandra.


Add a Comment