Sitting across from best-selling New York author Min Jin Lee in a Tokyo expat cafe, I can't help thinking that the heroine of her debut novel "Free Food For Millionaires" is the one sipping ice tea and talking sex. Like Lee, protagonist Casey Han is unusually tall, refined in speech, and deeply interested in hat-making.
"I got married when I was 24 and met my husband when I was 22, so what I know about men in a personal experience could literally fill an index card," laughs Lee, 39. Published last year, "Free Food" brims with adultery and soured relationships. It comes off as part Korean "Sex and the City," part Manhattan soap opera, but mostly as a Jane Austen-style novel of progress. Some of its themes are unique, and all of its characters are etched in deep detail. Now, having moved to Tokyo last year, Lee is focusing on the circumstances facing Koreans who live in Japan, the long-suffering "Zainichi" community whose loyalties are often divided between North and South Korea.
One of Lee's favorite quotes is by U.S. author James Baldwin, and it tells of the significance to her of personal and ethnic identity: "The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him." "Free Food" is a study in this dictate. Princeton-schooled Casey desperately tries to ascend New York's social ladders but is walled in by her Korean immigrant background. She has a secret white boyfriend because her father, a poor dry-cleaner, is a bigot. Casey has a love for millinery, but feels obligated to get a job at an investment bank. Those around her sabotage their happiness as well, gambling away their careers or betraying their spouses for sex. An early passage describes Casey's stultifying career choices, defined by her family obligations: