by Min Jin Lee
After graduating from Princeton, Casey Han returns to her parents’ home in Queens, having acquired expensive tastes as part of her four years of education. After she is kicked out by her father, Casey drifts through life without purpose, racking up debt as she struggles to determine what to do next. Without the help of her friend Ella, the perfect Korean-American daughter with the beauty of a model, Casey would be on the street. Ella’s fiancé helps Casey get a job at his investment firm, although he and Casey loathe each other, but the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots only adds to Casey’s frustration.
Although the story jumps around between viewpoints a lot, Casey is the main character. Bluntly, she is a bitch. Terrible with money, believing she’s entitled to more than she can afford, petty and mean to family and friends, Casey is often an extremely unpleasant person. As someone who spent much of my twenties drifting aimlessly, I understand how frustrating it is to be young and not sure of what you want to do. (I imagine the feeling is only magnified when you graduate from a school as prestigious as Princeton, surrounded by other students who are all much wealthier than you.) But Casey’s poor treatment of others makes her incredibly difficult to like. I felt disappointed in her, over and over again.
However, I think this is a sign of the strength of the characterization. Casey is a hot mess, but she’s a realistic one. I can feel disappointed in her because I can believe in Casey and her potential. We all know someone who seemed so full of potential but seemed determined to self-destruct rather than realize it, right? Two other women also stand out: Ella Shim and Leah Han (Casey’s mother), both genuinely nice, kind-hearted women who end up getting screwed by the men in their life. Ella is shy and quiet; as a child she was in awe of Casey’s boldness, and wanted to be her friend. As adults, the two women connect, and some of Casey’s attitude eventually inspires Ella’s own courage. Leah is an old-fashioned Korean wife who cares deeply for her family, but in her own way she’s as harsh as her daughter. Leah’s frosty reaction to Casey’s white boyfriend deepens the rift between Casey and her parents just as it was beginning to heal, but this matriarch remains the glue holding her family throughout the novel.
Free Food For Millionaires starts and stutters, jumping around in time. Often, stories are abruptly truncated. In one chapter, for example, Casey goes with timid Ella to see her wedding dress. When it’s clear that the dress neither flatters Ella nor is what she truly wants to wear, Casey immediately begins badgering the sales girl into taking it back. The story cuts away without letting the reader know how Casey finally got the return to go through, or how the two women decided what Ella would wear instead. I was disappointed, because the event was obviously a huge step forward for their friendship and it was left incomplete.
The story also veers toward soap opera dramatics. I didn’t mind it, because the characters are so well-drawn, but the constant peaks and valleys of drama might drive some readers up the wall. Sex and infidelity feature frequently and prominently. There’s also an attempted suicide, dramatic divorce, gambling addiction, and a rape scene.
The story is set in the 1990s, which I found somewhat amusing because I don’t remember that being a particularly great decade for hats, but this particular fashion accessory becomes Casey’s trademark. She works in the hat department in her friend’s department store, and is recognized several times for her fashionable ensembles, complete with perfect hat. References to certain celebrities and TV shows also help ground the book firmly in the 90s (as does the lack of dependence on the Internet) but the relationships and family drama are timeless.
4 out of 5 stars
To read more about Free Food For Millionaires, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Amazon Robots Fail
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th
2011: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
2010: White Cat (Curse Workers #1) by Holly Black
2009: Discussion Question: Ruining Your BooksRe