The Asian-American Trollope

Min Jin Lee's ambitious debut novel, "Free Food for Millionaires," has been showered with praise by literary critics. Lee's protagonist, Casey Han, is the daughter of Korean drycleaners who tries to reconcile her immigrant upbringing with the privileged Manhattan lifestyle that her Princeton education has promised her. Skillfully manipulating multiple points of view, Lee reveals the intricacies of New York's caste system while having Casey navigate her career (banking versus hatmaking), love, family obligations, money and belief.

Lee, 38, a former lawyer and stay-at-home mother, had a circuitous journey to authorhood. Since deciding to write 12 years ago, she faced rejections from The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Knopf and also attempted three prior novels, none of which were published. Now, critics compare her to Jane Austen and George Eliot. She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Charlene Dy.

NEWSWEEK: Your book deals a lot with class, and I read somewhere that you've experienced a lot of "class changes."
Min Jin Lee:
We migrated from Korea to the U.S. when I was 7. We moved to Elmhurst, a working-class neighborhood in Queens in New York City, where five of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment with rats in the kitchen. When I was growing up, my parents never had a vacation, they worked six days a week, we never had birthday parties, never went anywhere and we were on the reduced-lunch program. But I never felt poor. Even now when I think back, I don't think, "Oh, I was such a deprived person." We always had a lot of food, we always had shelter, we were always together. My parents were home every night for dinner. We went to church every Sunday.

'Free Food for Millionaires' was about so much more than just wealth and class.
It's about love.

But there was so much adultery in the book! Everyone was sleeping around and breaking up with each other. It's sort of a dim view of love.
Love is an absolutely tantalizing, beautiful thing. And yet, it is profoundly disappointing, too. I think adultery is a wonderful metaphor of betrayal. Sex is this intimate act between two people. In its highest form, we believe that it's to be held sacred between two people who love each other. And that's the reason why adultery always wounds us so much. But, if you take that as a metaphor, you can have adultery in friendship, you can have adultery in any intimate relationship.

Your book has been compared to writing by Philip Roth, Jhumpa Lahiri and so many Victorian authors.
Trollope! I'm Trollope now. These are comparisons that other people make, so I have no control over them. They're very flattering. I mean, it's not everyday that somebody goes, "Oh, by the way, your book is another updated 'Bonfire of the Vanities'." You're going, "Wow! How cool is that!" So I'm very pleased by the comparisons, and I'm very grateful, but I have to tell you, as an Asian woman, you don't really know where you fit.

In what sense?
As an artist. And to call yourself a writer, it's not easy for me to take that on, to say, "Oh, I'm an artist." It all sounds so luxurious, so up there somewhere. All I know is that I'm a housewife and a mother—words I have no problem saying. For the most part, I wrote this book in little tiny pieces, when I had extra time, when my son was in school, and when everybody was asleep and I'd finished my housework. So be taken seriously? It's like a miracle. And I walk around thinking, "I can't believe it's really happening," because less than a year ago, I didn't even have an agent.

But hadn't you been writing for, like, 12 years?
Absolutely. But if you saw how many rejections I had, you'd just laugh.

You used to be a lawyer.
I went to law school because I didn't have the nerve to be a writer. I didn't have the courage when I was 21. I mean writing? It seemed so luxurious. Then when I left corporate law, I was so exhausted that I thought it would be easy to write a book.

How similar are you to your protagonist, Casey Han?
Every time I had a problem with a character, I'd give them something I have. People think I'm all Casey, but I'm in so many characters. I broke my nose; Leah broke her nose. I love to cook, so I gave Ella my cooking. What does Flaubert say? "Emma Bovary, c'est moi."

The novel inhabits the so many different points of view, including those of a Puerto Rican doorman, an investment banker from Harvard Business School and a middle-aged choir conductor. What kind of research did you do for this book?
I interviewed 50 people for this book. I pretended to apply to Harvard Business School for a day—you can go online and apply to take free classes for a day to see what it's like. So I flew to Cambridge. I took a class in millinery at the Fashion Institute of Technology for a whole semester.

In the book, clothing and physical appearance were such telling signs of character. What are you wearing?
Well, my pants are from the Gap. They were on sale for $30. I am a writer, after all. And All-Star sneakers and a vintage white tunic.

Your book has a MySpace page . Whose idea was that?
My publicist's.

Are you the one who approves friends?
No, the publicist does. But I think I will. I want to. I'm kind of old. I'm almost 40. I feel like a senior citizen on the scene.

Well, I checked this morning, and you have 398 friends.
Wow. God bless them. I feel popular for the first time in my life.