I don’t often buy books I’ve never heard of by the unfamiliar authors purely on a whim, let alone for a full price, but this novel by a Korean-American writer, a spontaneous pick while milling around a bookstore, totally justified the gamble (also, I’ve noticed I’m much more likely to buy anything when it’s in red). It’s a sign of a great book when, after spending time with its characters for over 600 pages, you’re sad to say goodbye as you turn over the last page.
The novel’s heroine, Casey Han, is a young ambitious girl who grows up in Queens New York with her younger sister Tina and hard-working parents, Joseph and Leah, Korean immigrants running a dry-cleaning business. Thanks to the tireless efforts of her parents and Casey’s own bright mind, she gets to study economics at Princeton University, where she acquires a taste for fine things and high life, and a white American boyfriend her parents know nothing about. As one would expect, this frequent dilemma of immigrants’ children – the gulf between the traditional values of their parents and the culture of their birth country – is one of the major running threads.
As the novel opens, Casey is back home after graduating and life is about to deal her a couple of blows, literally and figuratively. She gets punched in the face and effectively disowned by her father when their already tense relationship implodes over a disastrous family dinner. When she heads to her boyfriend’s apartment for comfort and sanctuary, she finds him indulging in a threesome with a couple of girls out of town. Casey’s own frustrating, self-sabotaging side surfaces when, after spending the night at an expensive hotel she can’t afford, she instantly maxes out her credit card on designer clothes that only she thinks she needs. But her visit to the store also brings an unexpected gift when she bumps into Ella, a beautiful, wealthy, kind and docile girl who attended the same church in Queens. Ella becomes Casey’s short-term rescuer, her dramatic foil and the novel’s secondary heroine.
Casey’s fondness for the classics like Middlemarch and Jane Eyre, which she reads over and over, feels like a deliberate nod by Lee, whose own book seems to owe a lot to the busy, sprawling 19th-century novels (except that it has a lot more sex and is arguably more fun). While the main focus remains on Casey’s professional, romantic, financial and familial struggles, exacerbated by her bad habits and stubborn pride, Lee pays a lot of attention to the other characters with their own problems, flaws and subplots. There’s romance and relationships in all sorts of different combinations, some destined for success and some doomed from the beginning; and exploration of the 90s American high-flying corporate world and its mentality that, one suspects, is probably not too dissimilar from today’s.
Lee employs a writing technique where we’re given access to multiple characters’ thoughts and feelings during the same scene, so even as they act deplorably, you can at the very least understand them. I was also rather taken by Lee’s at times unusual turn of phrase; it’s hard to pin down or explain but there’s something unexpected about the way she combines words. Whether it simply came from being a first-time writer or not, I dug it.