It can be said that Crazy Rich Asians, the book and the movie has garnered much fame and success in the last few years that Kevin Kwan has become a well-known author. I’ve heard many things about Kevin Kwan, but I had yet to read one of his novels.
A huge thank you to Penguin for sending me this review copy in exchange for a review; this review was originally published and written by me on The Nerd Daily so you can also read it here.
The iconic author of the bestselling phenomenon Crazy Rich Asians returns with a glittering tale of love and longing as a young woman finds herself torn between two worlds–the WASP establishment of her father’s family and George Zao, a man she is desperately trying to avoid falling in love with.
On her very first morning on the jewel-like island of Capri, Lucie Churchill sets eyes on George Zao and she instantly can’t stand him. She can’t stand it when he gallantly offers to trade hotel rooms with her so that she can have the view of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she can’t stand that he knows more about Curzio Malaparte than she does, and she really can’t stand it when he kisses her in the darkness of the ancient ruins of a Roman villa and they are caught by her snobbish, disapproving cousin, Charlotte. “Your mother is Chinese so it’s no surprise you’d be attracted to someone like him,” Charlotte teases. Daughter of an American-born-Chinese mother and blue-blooded New York father, Lucie has always sublimated the Asian side of herself in favor of the white side, and she adamantly denies having feelings for George. But several years later, when George unexpectedly appears in East Hampton where Lucie is weekending with her new fiancé, Lucie finds herself drawn to George again. Soon, Lucy is spinning a web of deceit that involves her family, her fiancé, the co-op board of her Fifth Avenue apartment, and ultimately herself as she tries mightily to deny George entry into her world–and her heart. Moving between summer playgrounds of privilege, peppered with decadent food and extravagant fashion, Sex and Vanity is a truly modern love story, a daring homage to A Room with a View, and a brilliantly funny comedy of manners set between two cultures.
I never thought that I would ever read a novel that embodied the feel and experience of luxury like Sex & Vanity did. That’s exactly what it was all about. The main character, Lucie, was born in a wealthy family that dates its power and wealth from the settlement of the United States.
The story begins at a wedding in Capri, Italy. As one would expect, a wedding for the rich isn’t just a one-day event, it is instead, a full week of celebrations with various activities. When Lucie is invited and goes along with her chaperone and family relative Charlotte to Capri for the festivities of her old friend’s wedding, relationships and scandals begin the unfold.
There, she meets George Zao, another wealthy young man invited to the wedding with his mother. As the wedding approaches, she slowly and unexpectedly learns more about him but is basically in denial of her attraction because of the expectations from her blue-blooded family and her experience in her family while being of mixed-chinese heritage from her mother’s side.
This novel was so interesting and I could directly relate to it as a mixed-chinese woman, even if I wasn’t brought up in wealth and luxury. It wasn’t directly about the rich but about Lucie’s development for accepting herself, her heritage with pride and standing up for herself.
Throughout the book, Charlotte, and multiple other characters, especially within her family as well as random strangers, present micro-aggressions and signs of racism. From the first chapter, when the Asian culture of the rich is put down because of how wealth is treated differently within inner circles in America.
Further in the book, as the story switches to 5 years later and Lucie is engaged to a very rich newcomer to the community, more questions are brought up about how old money and new money are considered in the wealthy community. All-encompassing the idea of inclusion within a group, which was very interesting to examine.
I have to admit that it is quite hard to be able to fully interpret my feelings because there is so much to talk about! This book has layers of topics embedded in the story.
When it comes to the writing style, it was surprising how detached Kwan writes his characters. I, very much, felt like I was often watching an episode of Gossip Girl as they talked about famous people and famous things I had no grasp of. It was also a small turn-off that Kwan kept using footnotes. Even with books I love, like Nevernight, footnotes are inherently annoying and often disrupt the flow of the writing.
Going back to the note of detachment, although the main idea of the story was the romance, the book’s main content was all about the luxuries and the lives of these wealthy characters. There was a lack of connection to the actual relationship developing between Lucie and George. The constant focus on expensive products and famous wealthy people made the parts of the book where Lucie was contemplating or freaking out over George really strange and impromptu.
However, after finishing the book and thinking on it, I really think this was done on purpose. Their relationship being the ray of light among all the other extremely unlikeable characters, gave a point of difference. The story wasn’t just about the romance but about Lucie’s growth as a person within this community, and while the plot of the book itself wasn’t binge-worthy, the story managed to engage and keep you hooked in.
George was probably my favourite character, he was so down to earth and cared about the environment. He was also the only character to actually come across as humble and good-hearted. Lucie was interesting because I wasn’t a fan of her but I still wanted to know what she would do.
It doesn’t seem like it was the point for the reader to ever actually like anybody in this book, not even Lucie but to instead understand and appreciate the small good bits (predominately George I’d say) among the stuck-up rich who only care about sex & vanity.
I’ll be considering whether I want to read Crazy Rich Asians and other novels by Kwan but this novel was certainly thought-provoking and brought many questions and discussion topics in terms of racism, culture, micro-aggressions and the general acceptance that everybody craves. I think I’d still recommend Sex & Vanity, purely to incite discussion and because it was generally still quite a light read.
Have you read anything from Kevin Kwan? What did you think?
Until next time,