Crazy Rich Asians
by Kevin Kwan
2013 • 527 pages • Anchor Books
I never watched Gossip Girl, but I did read the odd Gossip Girl novel in high school (she said, instantly dating herself). I have a very specific memory of gobbling one up in math class in what felt like one go before handing it back to the girl who lent it to me. “They’re like crack,” she’d told me, and I feverishly agreed. Not to the point that I actively pursued the series any further, but to the point that I am not unfamiliar with the charms of a novel entirely about conspicuous consumption.
It’s really the best of both worlds—you get to rubberneck and disapprove at the same time, which appears to activate something mighty enough in the human psyche that this has been a genre for ages. (Joan Collins, anyone?) And the latest darling of conspicuous consumption narratives is Kevin Kwan, whose Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, have been making quite a splash.
The normal—i.e., middle-class—protagonist dropped into this particularly immaculately decorated lions’ den is Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU. She’s been dating Nicholas Young, a colleague in the history department, for two years. When he invites her to his best friend’s wedding back in Singapore, she agrees, expecting a sedate ceremony, to meet his parents, and then spend the rest of the summer traveling Asia with her boyfriend. What she does not expect is that Nicholas, unbeknowst to her, is the favorite son of one of the most ludicrously wealthy families in Singapore. A family that does not want to see Nick marry some American girl who comes from no family at all. Luckily, Rachel does have some friends in her corner—Nicholas himself, of course, the soon-to-be newlyweds, and her wealthy college friend Peik Lin—but she’s definitely in over her head.
I think it will come as no surprise that the rubbernecking is particularly good here. Kwan is even kind enough to toss off snarky footnotes for readers out of their depth in this particular culture. (If only Rachel had access to them!) There’s clothes and jewelry and cars and every single kind of material good you can possibly think of that costs more than you will ever make in a lifetime, let alone a year. When Rachel tries to pick out something demure and not too pricey from a rack provided by the bride-to-be, she’s cheerfully informed that the dress is handpainted by its Javanese designer. For the more virtuous among us, the best place to get certain dishes is practically a subplot, so there’s some food porn for those with more delicate constitutions.
And the schadenfreude is particularly good as well, opening with a racist hotel manager getting blindsided by the Youngs’ wealth when they buy the hotel he was trying to bar them from. Eddie, the most entitled of Nick’s cousins, is best for it—the only emotions he ever seems to feel are seething jealousy that someone has something cooler than he does and impotent rage when someone is doing something he doesn’t want them to do. This is a novel wherein a grown man yells at his six year old son for not knowing that you never button the bottom button of a jacket and a bride is driven to blind rage because someone dared not to wear a new dress to her wedding. (Why, she fumes, did she even have this wedding?)
But it’s so rich—all puns intended—in a way that feels a little unfulfilling. My stomach was a little sour after reading this, although that could just be my unfortunate habit of slightly undercooking my omelettes. Or it could have been how fast and loose Kwan plays with perspective, supposedly affecting a third person limited perspective but really always lunging after an omniscient one to the point of occasional disorientation. Kwan spends so much of the novel rubbernecking that a late in the game attempt to inject humanity in mass quantities feels forced, a little like trying to have your cake and eat it too. It’s especially odd because Kwan does manage to inject humanity into one character’s story—that of Nick’s cousin Astrid—by simply having one character make a selfless choice for once in their lives. It might sound counterintuitive, but a little humanity goes a long way in a novel like this. We all know why we’re here; we don’t need to ever pretend the reason is different.
I rented this book from the public library.