Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee's debut novel is a sprawling, complex tale that reads almost like an epic. The story revolves around Casey Han, recent Princeton graduate, class of '93. She is the eldest daughter of Korean immigrants who have run the same dry-cleaning business for several years and rarely venture outside the comforts of their Korean community. The novel kick-starts when Casey returns to her 2-bedroom home in Queens after graduating; she can't quite reconcile the expensive habits she has picked up in Princeton with the reality of her life. Jobless, she knows she loves the trust-fund lifestyle of her Princeton friends, but she has neither the means nor the opportunities to attain it. Her father doesn't understand why she just doesn't go to law school and be an obedient daughter like Casey's younger sister Tina. They have a falling out and Casey leaves home to strike out on her own.
Casey's finds help from an unlikely source: Ella, a Korean girl whom she avoided during childhood. Ella provides her with a home, a low-paying job, and a new boyfriend. Casey also finds help from a fashion maven who wants to "adopt" her and put her through business school. Casey, however, wants to do everything her way and turns away from help, all the while digging herself deeper in debt trying to put up an appearance of wealth and maturity.
Lee's novel is clearly ambitious, witty, and uniquely written. Lee gives each character such depth that we are pulled into a little mini-story with everyone Casey interacts with. As a result, this vast novel is layered with intergenerational, socio-economic, and racial relations. We are given an insight into traditional Korean culture as we take a peek into the lives of Casey's parents, Leah and Joseph; at the same time, we see the dynamics of a modern, Americanized Korean couple vis-à-vis Ella and her husband Ted.
Free Food for Millionaires is wholly engrossing, yet loses its' steam and perspective toward the last few chapters. The loose ends in Lee's novel may frustrate some readers, nevertheless Free Food for Millionaires is a brilliant and fresh take on the immigrant experience and a worthwhile treatment of intergenerational and cultural issues.