Min Jin Lee’s debut novel Free Food for Millionaires sets up the groundwork for the style of Pachinko. I don’t mean that to say that Lee’s writing is repetitive or boring. I mean that she has established a unique style that makes her work memorable.
There are several themes in common between Lee’s two novels. Free Food for Millionaires came out first, and it feels like something of a prototype for her later novel. Both stories focus on Korean immigrants into another country. Both focus on Christianity and Family as central themes. Both have a similar storytelling structure. I hope that Lee’s future works keep using this format, I enjoyed it in both books. It’s not easy to condense years of events into a single narrative, and Lee has an artful way of doing so.
Most of the time the novel follows Casey Han. Casey is a young woman straight out of Princeton and unsure of where to go next in her life. After an argument with her father (one of many) he kicks her out of their home. At first, Casey tries to go to stay with her boyfriend, but catches him in bed with not one but TWO other women. She stays with her childhood acquaintance Ella and Ella’s husband Ted. Casey works two jobs, one at an investment firm and one at a store a family friend owns. She needs to pay for both her necessities and her extravagant clothing purchases.
If I had to choose a central theme for Free Food for Millionaires, I would say it’s entitlement. Some of the most interesting characters are the most insufferable. Casey came from an impoverished childhood, the daughter of poor Korean immigrants. At Princeton, she would go to social events and country clubs as the guest of more affluent friends. She gained a taste for the finer things in life, even without the money to pay for them herself. Ted Kim got into Harvard and left his fishing town in Alaska without ever looking back. Free Food for Millionaires explores individuals with an insatiable hunger for wealth. There’s never enough wealth to satiate their entitlement.
Lee juxtaposes wealth and poverty when the two worlds of her novel meet. New money forgets its roots, and old money looks down on those that don’t have anything. At one point, the Hans are attending a rehearsal dinner for the daughter, Tina. The parents brought gifts to present to their respective future in-laws. The Hans, pulled as much money as they could to buy expensive designer gifts for their future son in law’s family. Then, Tina’s Fiancee’s family gave the Hans cheap gifts. They were implying that that’s all they deserved.
Casey’s talents often aren’t useful to her circumstances, at least in her mind. She is a talented hat maker in a age where only the older-fashioned women buy fancy hats. She is a natural golfer who can’t afford green fees. Also, her materialism isn’t only a negative force in her life. Her intimate knowledge of trinkets helps her sell them as she works in Sabine’s store. She also can navigate the bougie However, it’s usually another source of trouble for her. Even as she lives on 30 cent ramen noodles, she accumulates thousands of dollars in credit card debt. She struggles to fill her emotional emptiness with material purchases. She knows that she has a problem, but she still struggles to stop spending so much money. It’s an addiction, even though Lee doesn’t use that word to describe Casey’s problem.
Without giving away exactly how the book ends, I do want to discuss HOW it ends. Not the events, but rather the way that Lee actually writes the ending. Both Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko don’t end, but rather they just stop. There’s plenty of unanswered questions and not a lot of evidence to suggest an answer to these questions. I think it works, however. It suggests that Casey’s story goes on after the book stops. I think that the open-ended way that the book ended helped the book dig into my mind and it stuck with me longer. I don’t think that Free Food for Millionaires was as good as Pachinko, but Lee had a decade to improve her craft between the two books, so it makes sense. Still, I had a good time reading Free Food for Millionaires and I would recommend it completely.