Published in 2007, this book is Min Jin Lee’s first of her Korean diaspora trilogy, the second of which is Pachinko. A 560 page long read, I found the style to be exactly like Pachinko (the first book featured on this blog), essentially long-winding narratives about different characters. Some readers find many of the characters to be irrelevant, boring or unnecessary, but I found each sucked me into the novel further.
The story’s central character is Casey Han, a 20-something Korean-American girl who just graduated from Princeton. Casey grew up in a humble apartment in Queens with parents who own a few dry cleaning businesses in Manhattan and a younger sister who is, by her parents standards, the perfect Korean daughter: pre-med student, easy to parent, disciplined and filial. Casey on the other hand is brash, often fighting with her parents and dating a Caucasian guy she met in college that her parents don’t yet know about. Over the course of the book set in the mid-90s, Casey experiences heartache after heartache as her father kicks her out for disrespecting him, the Caucasian boyfriend cheats on her and while she figures out what to pursue career wise. She’s gained expensive habits from being surrounded by wealthy-trust fund kids in college and managed to buy herself into debt on top of all this. Other story lines include Casey’s friend Ella, a young Korean woman who is docile and even-tempered, who finds out Ted, her pompous investment banker fiancé later turned husband turned baby-daddy turned ex-husband has cheated on her while pregnant with a red-haired busty secretary from work, Delia. Ella finds herself locked in a custody battle over their daughter, Irene, while realizing the man she now loves is her co-worker, David. There’s also Casey’s mom, Leah, who is the top choir singer at church. The new choir director Charles finds forty year old Leah exceptionally attractive and sets out to seduce her. Leah, an extremely conservative Christian woman has a crush on the director, has no idea how sexually charged his advances are, later finding herself in the back of her own car as he is raping her. There is a lot of sex in the book, yes, but I disagree with some reviewers calling this novel chick-lit disguised as literary fiction. Because all the characters come from various cross-sections of society in term of age, socio-economic status, education level, I found the book to really been a commentary on how various people experience and rationalize life: how they respond to interracial relationships, mysogyny, sex, marriage, capitalism, religion, luxury, privilege. The characters have wildly different coping mechanisms and ideas of what life is worth living.
I will say though, I felt like the story was missing end. Nothing was resolved, except on the last two pages, Casey seemed to somewhat make amends with her Korean boyfriend Unu, an unemployed finance guy with a dangerous penchant for gambling. I was surprised that the book ended there, as Unu was not one of the central characters. I wished there there was a little bit more in the ending, not necessarily a happy one, but more closure between Casey and her parents. I’m excited to see what Lee writes next, as she’s slated to publish the third book in the trilogy soon.