Trying on Different Hats; A Princeton Graduate Struggles to Find Her Way

Article excerpt

Byline: Robert VerBruggen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

If all stories were as fascinating as their main characters, Casey Han would make "Free Food For Millionaires" downright entrancing. She stands defiantly at the heart of Min Jin Lee's first novel, going out of her way to turn good situations bad.

By the tale's outset she's already graduated from Princeton, but she's living at home with her Korean immigrant parents (the docile Leah and the quiet, sometimes violent Joseph) and younger sister (Tina). In one of the fits of arrogance the ultra-educated are prone to, she'd only applied to one investment banking program before school let out, and she didn't get in. She's planning to sell hats at a department store until she can find a job that utilizes her education.

Joseph and Leah have worked themselves ragged over the years managing a dry-cleaning shop, and Joseph in particular finds it annoying to house a college graduate who doesn't seem to take finding work seriously. Soon tempers (and Joseph's fists) get out of control, and Casey finds herself with an Ivy League degree, an injured face, no job and no place to stay.

She takes her things, says goodbye to Tina and heads out to stay with Jay, the white boyfriend she's never told her parents about. In an absurd coincidence, this is the very night that two Louisiana State University sorority girls approached Jay in a bar after work and, on a dare, offered him a threesome point-blank. To make the situation all the more insulting and unlikely (why not?), Casey has her own key, lets herself in and inadvertently catches the happy couple-plus-one in the middle of things.

From there she finds an expensive hotel and charges the stay to her new credit card. The next morning she shops for "work clothes" at an upscale shop. The total comes to $4,300 for a pair of slacks, a skirt, a shirt, a suit and a jacket. She decides to put the clothes on hold and, if she can restrain herself, not come back to buy them.

Just then she runs into Ella, a rich acquaintance from her parents' church. Not wanting to admit her streak of bad luck, Casey maxes out her card buying the clothes. Ella pries, though, and that night Casey begins living with Ella and Ted Kim, Ella's fiancee. Ted gets Casey a sales assistant job with his banking firm. After a few twists, Casey is living on her own and selling hats again on weekends.

Ms. Lee launches into an intricate but very followable series of subplots that weaves between Casey's humble Queens origins and the upscale world of New York finance, a subway ride and a world away. Readers meet Delia, the office tramp who takes Ted from Ella soon after they marry. They meet David, a nice coworker of Ella's who consoles her.

Then there's Sabine, who owns the store Casey sells hats at and mentors the girl. Chul, Tina's fiancee. Hugh Underwood, a seductive broker who helps Casey with her career. Unu, Ella's cousin and eventually Casey's gambling-addicted boyfriend. Charles, who conducts Leah's church choir. Ms. Lee fully develops each of these characters, plunging into immigrant and native societies without relying too much on stereotypes.

There's a lot of value in "Free Food." It's loaded with worthwhile social observations, albeit occasionally delivered through smash-you-over-the-head statements. ("As a hardworking middle-class person, she found the idea of justice comforted her," for example.)

Through Casey it depicts a cohort of poor students at top-tier colleges who can't help but feel jealous of their rich classmates - no matter how well off human beings are, they often find time to resent the fact that someone, somewhere had an easier life than they did. …