Sex and Vanity: A Novel by Kevin Kwan

3 stars

To borrow from physics, Newton’s First law of Motion dictates that a body in motion stays in motion which seems to account for Kevin Kwan’s latest installment of Asians (and others) acting badly, Sex and Vanity. Kwan’s first book, Crazy Rich Asians, was a phenomenon for its brash portrait of nouveau riche Asians and funny in a kind of “oh my god, can you believe he said that” kind of way. Crazy’s, progeny, while not as funny, still amused. But Sex and Vanity might be a bridge too far in the current climate where the insidiousness of racial and gender stereotyping is front and center.

A summer romp? It is. Funny, at times? It is. Decadent? Of course, what would be the point otherwise? But a tightly plotted story with unique characters who defy tropes that speaks to a universal in its specific antics, it is not.

The basic story is an old one—which suitor will the heart of the fair princess, Lucie Churchill, the daughter of an American-born Chinese mother and a blue-blooded American father? The WASPy fiancée the family has in mind, or George Zao the handsome interloping Asian Lucie tries (not so hard) not to fall in love with? Sound familiar Austen and Bronte, even James lovers? Yes, but it’s an illusion—this comedy of manners soon descends into gross generalizations about class, race, and gender which, if made by another author, might not have made it to the page.

Admittedly, Sex and Vanity is an escape hatch for the current times. The romantic hand wringing occurs across continents, from Italy to New York, which is envy provoking when we are stuck in place, and for that it is worth the paper or pixels it is written on. But is the reader willing to forgive the cliched characterizations on which the story is premised? That is the gateway question to picking this bon bon off the shelf because let there be no doubt that this tale fails to transcend the shenanigans of the filthy rich. But maybe that’s the point and the joke is on this reviewer.

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