A second-generation Korean American, Lee immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old. He was raised in Westchester, New York, and graduated from Yale University with a degree in English and from the University of Oregon with a MFA in writing. He worked as a Wall Street analyst for a year before turning to writing full time. His first novel, Native Speaker (1995), won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the American Book Award and explores the life of a Korean-American outsider who is involved in espionage. In 1999, he published his second novel, A Gesture Life, which elaborated on his themes of identity and assimilation through the narrative of an elderly physician who remembers treating Korean “comfort women” during World War II. His 2004 novel Aloft was critically acclaimed and features Lee's first protagonist who is not Korean, but a disengaged and isolated suburbanite forced to deal with his world.