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Free Food For Millionaires

Here is a big, fat novel, stuffed with Victorian satisfactions. Its sensibility may be entirely modern, but its command of multiple story lines betrays an author who, like her principal heroine, Casey Han, has been marinated in Middlemarch. Min Jin Lee has produced the kind of novel that, under favorable circumstances, remains fresh despite the passage of time and changes in fashion, and comes to be loved.

Free Food For Millionaires is situated more than midway up the hill from which such elegant novels as Claire Messud's The Emperor's Chilldren overlook the valley of Chick-Lit. It is complex, insightful, and well-written. It is also burdened with the weight of a few too many brand names. Ms Lee deploys brand names with great finesse, and she could never be accused of mere name-dropping. In the following passage, the names of the luxury-goods emporia capture both the stylish generosity of the stepmother and the refined greediness of the stepchildren. But in their place, all readers, and not just those from today's more affluent strata, would understand the substitution of "luxury-goods stores."

Isaac's adult children - three married girls and a boy who was taking over his business - liked Sabine. He'd anticipated some resistance about her age, but they approved of her, refraining from calling her the usual names. All four children were exhausted from years of distrusting their half-siblings from the other marriage and were merely trying to hang on to the attentions of their charismatic father, who was sensitive to criticism. They were relieved that there would be no more heirs, and to boot, Sabine possessed a fortune of her own. Their father's third wife was treated as a chic aunt who sent birthday gifts from Asprey and Hermès. They did not discuss Sabine with their respective mothers.

I quote the passage, however, not for the brand names - which irk simply because they add up to too great a total - but because the last sentence takes my breath away. It is the unlooked-for completion of a group portrait that surprises the reader with a stunning recognition. By Not discussing the Korean and fortyish Korean Sabine with their mothers, Isaac's children betray the fact that they regard the "chic aunt" as a concubine. The children like Sabine because she is not, really, a stepmother at all. She is a respectable kept woman.

Isaac's children make no other appearance in Free Food For Millionaires. They have served their purpose: defining the circumstances in which an important supporting character has made herself comfortable. Sabine Jun Gottesman is a successful merchant, the owner of a clothing shop so tony that it has been written up by architecture critics. Although good-natured, Sabine knows how to play the ruthless dragon lady. This she does often enough with Casey, her sometime part-time employee and protégé.

Casey Han does not know what to do with her life, and what smacks the novel into life (in the first chapter, to be sure) is her determination to wait and see. Casey has come to rely on her previsions of what's next. So far, she has had no vision of law school, or of anything else.

Now it was a Saturday night in June, a week after Casey's college graduation. Her four years at Princeton had given her a refined diction, an enviable golf handicap, wealthy friends, a popular white boyfriend, an agnostic's closeted passion for reading the Bible, and a magna cum laude degree in economics. But she had no job and a number of bad habits.

Her decision to put off Columbia Law School in the fall is totally unacceptable to her father, Joseph. They fight; he strikes her. Then he throws her out of his house. He fully expects her to beg to be let back in, but Casey is nothing if not stubbornly proud of her autonomy.

If I had been Ms Han's editor, I might have counseled her to write a book with Joseph and Leah Han at the center, largely because they have a way of stealing the book whenever they're on the page. Leah's story is particularly powerful, and considerably more affecting than her daughter's. Joseph is much older than his wife, and, unlike her, he comes from a good Korean family (she is the daughter of a provincial Presbyterian minister). But all was lost in the Korean War, and Joseph and Leah have toiled at a dry-cleaning shop in Sutton Place that they do not own. They live in a dreary flat in Queens. Their daughters have been pushed to excel, although both possess an aptitude for schoolwork. What Joseph and Leah never imagined is that the world into which their daughters' achievements would propel them might spoil them for the Korean virtues that their parents honor with every breath they take.

In the event, the younger daughter, Tina, is safe. She intends to go to medical school, but over the course of a the novel she marries another medical student and almost at once has a child, clouding her incomplete studies and leaving her rather bored at home. There is nothing in this that would disappoint her parents. Casey, however, graduates from Princeton with one foot tentatively planted in the rich "white" world of her college chums. She is capable of rebellion, as we see almost at once. But she is not capable of rebellion with guilt and shame.

She was honest enough to admit that her privacy cloaked a fear: the fear of being found as a hypocrite. Casey was keenly aware of her Christian failings. Routinely, she mumbled, "Jesus Christ," when she stubbed her toe; for a young woman, she had slept with enough men she'd had no love for or intentions of marrying; she'd had an abortion without egret; she'd tried drugs (liked some very much and feared that she had an addictive personality, and for that reason alone, she did not seek them out); she enjoyed getting nice things, and it was an explicit goal for her to have them; every day, she envied someone else's life; she adored gossip in any form; she'd stolen clothes from the return bin at Sabine's; she disliked many Christians - finding them dull and intolerant; and nearly two months prior, she'd told her own parents to fuck off. Her commandment violations were numerous and sustaining. She would not win any white-leather Bibles at Sunday school camp. Her awareness of God, quotidian Bible reading, and obscure verse scribbling made no sense to her. Casey could not commit to no God, either.

Casey's foil in the novel is Ella Shim. Described by the author as resembling the actress Gong Li, Ella the very reserved daughter of a widowed ophthalmologist who belongs to the same church as the Hans. Casey has known of but ignored Ella for most of her life. Her view of Ella begins to change in the fourth chapter, when two women meet at a shop that sounds like something between Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman. Casey, who cannot resist good clothes, has just paid a fortune for a fashionable suit, while Ella is having her bridal gown fitted. Ella takes Casey to lunch and, advised of her homelessness, insists that Casey stay with her in her Upper East Side flat.

Nice girl though she be, Ella is already living with her fiancé, Ted Kim. Ted's story, in Free Food For Milliionaires, shows off Ms Lee's ability to render an unsympathetic character ultimately sympathetic. Ted is a banker with two Harvard degrees and a career map that he has negotiated so well that he is "two years ahead of his own plan." He's tall by any standards, not just for a Korean, and solidly built. He's handsome. He's savvy. And he's full of himself. He adores Ella, but he doesn't love her. He lands himself the perfect wife, only to find that she is not the perfect wife for him. His parents, cannery workers in Alaska, are crushed when blows his marriage. But Ted is not a worthless heel whose adversity is cause for cheering. He and Ella are destined to leave the Korean fold, and their marriage is a shorted circuit from the start. Ted's infidelity (recorded on a security camera) is matched by Ella's smothered affection for the man she works for, in private-school development. In true Victorian fashion - but following decidedly un-Victorian developments - the novel corrects the mismatch.

Ms Lee is more contemporary - more ambiguous - about Casey's romantic life. At the start, Casey is very much in love with Jay Currie, a fair-haired boy whose background is almost as humble as hers. That's, in fact, what unites them: they mock their wealthy classmates even while they work on their golf. Their relationship suffers upon decompression into the real world. On the night that Joseph throws Casey out of the house, Jay does something stupid and gets caught. Eventually, Casey takes him back, but she finds that, in some way that she can't put her finger on, she has outgrown him. Again: she has no vision of their getting married. She might well have married him, though, if he hadn't thrust himself upon her parents at Ella's wedding. The following passage, from well into the encounter, gives a very good idea of the kind of dramatic tension that Joseph and Leah tend to generate (Douglas is Dr Shim, Ella's father).

"Sir - it's a privilege to meet you." Jay's voice grew louder - all pleasantness in his tone having vanished. The table stared at the boy in shock. It was not acceptable for a younger person to speak this way to someone of Joseph's age.

Joseph exhaled through his nostrils. He had to remind himself where he was. "Excuse me."

Jay remained still.

Joseph took a long breath, then raised his right hand. In one quick beat, he threw a powerful shove against the boy's left shoulder. Jay stumbled back but did not fall. The guests gasped, but Joseph was gone. If he had stayed he would've murdered the boy.

Douglas patted Jay's back to calm him. Jay turned to Casey, but her eyes were shut; she was like a child attempting to make a room disappear. Leah covered her mouth with her hands. She didn't know if Joseph would return for her, not realizing that her husband hadn't taken the car. He was already outside, walking up Queens Boulevard toward the 7-Eleven. He went to buy cigarettes - his first pack in twenty-three years.

Casey moves out of Jay's apartment and lives in Battery Park City for a while. By now she has a job at Ted's bank, although in another department. She is overqualified for this job, money-wise, but she does it well. Casey is a true professional: capable of organizing everyone's life but her own. Eventually, she hooks up with a banker with another firm, Unu Shim. Unu happens to be Ella's cousin. He has grown up in affluence, too, but heedlessly, in Dallas. Both on the job and off, Unu is a gambler. First his banking gambles sour - he prefers long-term positions to short-, and gets hammered in the Asian currency crisis - and he loses his job. Then he risks losing everything else, principally at Foxwoods, a gambling resort in Connecticut. Once again Ms Lee creates a compelling portrait of a complex character. Fundamentally attractive - in a way that Ted isn't - Unu is nonetheless beset by very serious flaws. Life in Unu's blinkered, wishful-thinking world eventually becomes insupportable, and when she acts out, we sympathize. What we don't do is take sides. 

Wound up - almost hidden - within the interwoven stories of Casey and Ella, there is a romance/horror story that draws heavily on Leah's persistent Korean-ness. Her misadventure stems from her failure to acculturate herself to life in America. This alienation means, for example, that she does not know how to talk about delicate subjects, leaving her silence open to misinterpretation. For a fortyish mother of two, Leah is shockingly innocent. She is utterly unprepared for the advances of Charles Hong, the new and very worldly choir director who has fallen love first with her beautiful singing voice and then with her. After a concocted private rehearsal, Charles drives Leah home, but stops in a parking lot.

There was no one in the street. It wasn't past ten o'clock, but the streets were bare. The yellow streetlights flickered above them. Charles was the most handsome man she had ever known. He was telling her that he thought she was beautiful. If she weren't married, she would have let him keep kissing her. But what she and her husband did on Friday nights was something that only married people did. Only sexual relations between a husband and wife were sanctioned by God. Leah did not think much about sex, but it crossed her mind that it might be different with Charles. The thoughts filled her with shame. Adultery could be committed in sheer thought alone - that much she knew. The great King David in the Old Testament had killed his trusted friend Uriah when Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, became pregnant with David's child. David, the Lord's anointed shepherd king, had fallen prey to lust. He had murdered his best friend to cover his sin. At this moment, what Leah felt was a kind of desire, and the feeling itself was strange. The professor wanted her, too.

Charles stroked her hair, and Leah didn't want that gentleness to stop. When was the last time anyone had touched her hair?

But he had to stop. Leah didn't know how to make him leave the car. Instead, she asked if she could go home.

But by now, Charles's course is set, and he is capable of taking full advantage of Leah's mute submissiveness. Ms Lee renders the helplessness of Leah's situation with contagious agony. The scene would be melodramatic, and possibly even ridiculous, if it were not for our conviction of Leah's innocent inexperience of life, something that has been carefully and assiduously presented since the first pages of the novel. The sequel to Leah's encounter with Charles in the car gathers up the novel's concluding power. While lose ends are tied up in the young women's lives, Leah's story thunders to a climax - and then a second climax.

Free Food For Millionaires could well be a shorter book. I hope that Ms Lee will develop confidence in her ability to make herself clear the first time she says something. There is an early chapter that, in my opinion, ought to have been deleted altogether. Min Jin Lee writes very well - and this book, I expect, will not prove to have been her only chance to demonstrate her gifts. Such sins as she commits, however, are the sins of the first-novelist. It is a great pleasure to have occasion to forgive them. (August 2007)

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