How do you select a good read? Recommendations from friends and book reviews are two popular sources. But sometimes nothing beats a leisurely stroll through your local bookstore.
I can spend hours perusing the stacks of bright, attention- grabbing covers wondering what lies beneath. Is the novel with the garish font and eerie photo a murder mystery? I’m sure the book with the pink cover and girlish design is chick lit. A testimonial from Dr. Phil emblazoned on the cover promises “happily ever after,” and a quote from Malcolm Gladwell guarantees a book full of witty business insights.
During a recent ramble, I ran across a book with the appealing image of a shiny top hat on the cover. The title, Free Food for Millionaires, was equally intriguing.
FFFM is a juicy family saga about the Hans, a Korean American family, living in New York.
As the novel opens, our heroine, Casey Han, has returned to her parents’ shabby apartment in Queens after graduating from Princeton where she was a scholarship student.
Like many recent college graduates, Casey has only vague plans for the future. Although accepted to Columbia Law School, she is not excited by the prospect. Expensive clothes, golf, cigarettes, and sex with her white boyfriend, Jay excites Casey. None of these activities is likely to lead to lucrative employment or impress her parents.
Casey’s parents, Leah and Joseph Han, are ambitious for their daughter as well as old fashioned. They expect her to have a prestigious profession and marry a nice Korean boy. When it becomes clear that Casey has no intention of conforming to her parents’ expectations, Joseph expels her from the family.
In desperation, Casey moves in with a wealthy and practically perfect friend, Ella Shim. In marked contract to Casey’s situation, Ella is engaged to a successful Korean boy and is much adored by her widowed father.
Casey accepts an entry-level position as a sales assistant at a securities firm, whose lunchroom inspires the title of the book. She also works part-time for her mentor, Sabine, a glamorous, retail tycoon.
Despite a roof over her head and steady employment, Casey is restless. She defers acceptance to law school, incurs huge credit card debts, and breaks up with Jay. Casey knows she should be more focused, but inertia envelops her. In frustration, Sabine tells her, “Every minute matters. Every damn second. All those times you turn on the television or go to the movies or shop for things you don’t need… every time you sleep with the wrong man and wait for him to call you back, you’re wasting your time… And by the time you’re my age—you’ll see that for every day and every last moment spent, you were making a choice. And you’ll see that the time you had, that you were given, was wasted. It’s gone. And you cannot have any of it back.”
It is a lament familiar to every parent. And like every child, Casey ignores her mentor’s wise words.
While Casey aimlessly putters along, her presumably well-adjusted friends and family have caught the dissatisfaction virus too. Ella’s perfect marriage collapses, Sabine’s husband cheats on her, and even Leah and Joseph’s old world relationship shows signs of strain.
Just when the proud but indecisive Casey hits rock bottom, she performs an extraordinary service for her mother. The compassion Casey demonstrates for a woman whose life is a complete mystery to her represents a powerful turning point in Casey’s life.
Despite a few melodramatic plot twists, Free Food For Millionaires is an engaging story with vivid characters. As Casey comes to realize, the practically perfect family, love, or job doesn’t exist, but striving for it is what makes a life.
This ECW Classic Review was originally published in NFocus magazine.