Sex and the City, Korean-style: a review of Min-Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires

Free Food for MillionairesMin-Jin Lee: Free Food for Millionaires
(Random House, 2007)
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I hesitated before packing this two-inch thick paperback into my suitcase for a week’s holiday. The cover design doesn’t give much away — a black top hat and slightly messy collection of different typefaces spelling out a title which leaves a lot to the imagination — so it was touch and go as to whether it was going to make the journey. But fortunately it did.1

The “free food” of the title is the boardroom lunch which is bought by a successful deal team for the other folks on the trading floor of a particular boilerplate New York investment bank. Neither free — at some point, one hopes, each of the teams will be successful enough to have to pay up — nor are all the consumers millionaires. In particular, the heroine Casey, struggling to pay off her credit card debts, has negative net worth on paper. But she has other talents.

The novel is a combination of Sex and the City and Wall Street, though Casey Han, the Carrie Bradshaw of our novel, is into hats rather than shoes. Some of the key plotlines are similar to your average American TV series, and indeed this book would make a very good TV series itself. Which marriage is going to fall apart next? Who will sleep with whom next? Will they get caught? Despite spending all her credit limit on fancy clothes and fancy dinners, will our heroine succeed in getting a place in business school and getting an internship which will lead to a job that will pay off her debts?

If the plotline is unremarkable, it nevertheless keeps you turning the pages for its near 600 page length. The book’s unique selling point is to set the rather generic potboiler plot in a Korean-American setting, which gives it an additional dimension.

As the book opens, our heroine is thrown out of her parents’ house for a combination of sins — lack of direction after finishing at a prestigious university, and lack of proper filial respect for the hardworking father who inevitably runs a dry cleaning business. Interesting cultural observations litter the book: the question of who makes a better boyfriend: the westerner who doesn’t know how to bow from the waist, the Korean who’s a complete “asshole” in the investment bank or the divorced Korean with a heart of gold but an expensive addiction; the complex social politics of how much to spend on gifts for the in-laws before a wedding; the way that family background back in Korea still counts for something, even though this might be invisible to a westerner.

The book is well-researched: the investment banking technical terms are wheeled out as if the author has done her homework, and the setting in the lively Korean church seems authentic, down to the politics within the choir as to who gets the next solo. But maybe an insider can help me out on this one: does a choir in a New York Korean church really survive on a diet of arrangements of stirring hymns such as How Great Thou Art? Particularly on over four hours of rehearsal a week? That requires some serious devotion to the Cause, and maybe partly explains why the choirmaster seeks other stimulation from the soprano line.

Our heroine and her chums and extended families keep us entertained with their scrapes. Most of them have extra-marital relationships, most of them have a heartbreak or two along the way, but also most of them end up living happily ever after. Is it great literature? Who cares — it’s good lightweight reading.

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  1. You can tell that the publisher has had similar doubts about the cover. Search for the book on amazon’s UK site and there are no fewer than four alternative versions, all of which appear to be unavailable at the time of writing []

4 thoughts on “Sex and the City, Korean-style: a review of Min-Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires

  1. Hi Philip. This sounds like exactly the type of Korean-American bs-lit that is neither culturally informative or enlightening but seems to be the only way Korean-Americans can get published in the U.S. There tends to be much pandering to the Asian stereotypes, especially the negative stereotyping of Korean-Americans of and by themselves, such as the “asshole” Korean, “addict” Korean with a heart of gold, and the mixed up, central character of “Casey” herself. Filial respect and hard work are as much a part of the Puritan foundations of America. Inter-racial marriage is a difficult and complex issue among upper classes of any culture, and same for inter-class marriage. The Korean grocery store/dry-cleaning business belies the fact that many of these shopkeepers were university-educated, professionals who lacked language skills or connections in America. I haven’t read the book and doubt I will, but do you think, you’re being polite and not critical enough?

  2. May I suggest that our Dear Editor engage himself in more constructive pursuits than reading trashy novels on the beaches of NZ regardless of the self-indulgent, individualistic pleasure it may bring him personally?

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