Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5
Casey Han — the daughter of Korean immigrants in Queens — craves a wealthy lifestyle she cannot afford, having been exposed to such while on a scholarship to Princeton. She craves “beauty and the illusion of a better life.” Casey balances pride, deeply embedded family traditions, and her emerging sense of self as she struggles to grow up and be the person she is slowly determining that she wants to be. While we follow Casey from graduation through the next five (or so) years, we are also treated to the developing stories of women who are important to her: her mother, a mentor, an acquaintance who rescues her and turns into a close friend. Rather than following a narrative arc, this book seems to follow a Life Arc — twisting and turning with sometimes rapid and surprising (to us and to Casey) shifts. The first novel by the author of Pachinko, you’ll recognize the style and treatment, while this book focuses on a Korean-American family and Pachinko is focused on 20th century Korea.
Although only covering a few years, this book felt epic because of its size and incredible depth. The characters are far too detailed and deeply introspective to even hint at stereotypes. Psychological analysis, philosophical musings, and cultural context (somehow never the same for any two people) help move the inner story along while the external story is utterly unpredictable.
The prose is beautiful, detailed, and rich. I love the way the author repeatedly and seamlessly contrasts the inner deliberations of each character with how his or her behavior appears to others. We are led through the minutiae of multiple lives that rarely go in the expected direction, but make do with the many, realistic tangents that comprise a life (regardless of any planning!). I appreciated the many domains that were brought to life by Casey’s experiences: investment banking and trading, millinery and fashion, church and faith, weddings, antiquarian books, and probably several others that I can no longer remember.
There were so many good quotes, but I listened to most of it as an audio book while driving and couldn’t write down a single one. 😦