Kevin Kwan is a Singaporean relocated to New York, and Rich People Problems is the third of his rollicking romps of money and status in Asia. The first, Crazy Rich Asians, a brilliant title, and a brilliant idea, was a smash-hit success. It is currently being made into a movie which seems certain to be a riot. The three novels follow a core cast of characters, but each can be read as a stand-alone title.
All three feature Asian characters in Asia, as opposed to Asian immigrants in the West or Westerners in Asia. Kwan’s characters are powerful and confident, as well as being rich and gorgeous. It’s interesting to see novels reflect brashly materialistic aspects of Chinese culture, and it’s fantastic both that an Asian author has at last felt free to show Asians striding about the world calling all the shots, and that commercial fiction from Asia (albeit via New York) has hit the international bestseller lists.
But an approach that was fresh and new in the first two books has perhaps become a little formulaic by the third. Certainly, I found myself reading Rich People Problems with a more jaundiced eye than I did its predecessors. Now that the novelty has worn off it struck me that a constant diet of beautiful rich people living lives of heedless hedonism can become a tad jading—as Kwan surely realizes, since at the end of Rich People Problems, he has some of his characters giving back to society, although not in a way likely to inconvenience them much.
This might of course just be jealousy of the crazy rich I was reading about. But if so, I am in any case happy to grant they are no less deserving of sympathy than anybody else, and that they can have real problems, and not just the kinds of rich people problems playfully identified in Kwan’s prologue, which include such torments as: “Your airplane is forced to land before you can finish drinking your Dom Pérignon.”
Still, whether you roll your eyes at them in irritation, or in abhorrence, or in affectionate indulgence, Kwan’s rich people are not immune to illness, ageing, death and pain. Indeed, a death is central to his almost Victorian plot. This concerns the inheritance of Tyersall Park, a mansion in Singapore worth billions of (Singaporean) dollars. Matriarch Su Yi, on her deathbed for half the novel, has the power to bequeath Tyersall Park however she likes. Before her death, there are inevitable shenanigans as various members of her sprawling family jostle to hit the jackpot. After her death, she is revealed to have a surprise up her sleeve, and a bombshell family secret comes to light.
As this plot unspools, the reader is clearly supposed to hope that things work out well for some characters, cousins Nick and Astrid for example, and that others will be thwarted, another cousin, Eddie for instance. But I struggled to distribute my sympathies as intended. Nick and his wife, Rachel, ostensibly reject wealth in favour of eking out an existence as professors in New York, and I kept hoping against hope they really would end up living off their earnings—but of course they don’t. Meanwhile, I couldn’t see why poor old Eddie, from a less well-off branch of the family, whom is (affectionately?) mocked for trying too hard and showing off, was in fact much different from those who held him in contempt—he was just less slick about his ostentation. To be fair, Kwan does ensure Eddie is eventually sent to a therapist, who sets him on the path towards emotional intelligence.
I also failed to be persuaded that Rich People Problems is a satire. Kwan’s writing is billed as such, and not wish-fulfilment fantasy, but it seems to me too much in thrall to the world and the people it is supposedly satirizing to do anything but flatter them. In that respect, this novel is no different from its predecessors.
Attitude to enormous wealth aside, there were other aspects of Rich People Problems I found troubling. Astrid’s on again-off-again consort, Charlie, who proposes in a Bollywood style extravaganza which would surely embarrass even a Kardashian, was previously married to Isabel, who is now having a breakdown. The poor woman’s mental health problems are more-or-less used to move the plot along, and the reader is likewise more-or-less invited to see her as little more than an inconvenience to Astrid and Charlie.
Meanwhile Kitty, an arriviste now married to a billionaire, is exploited by a hanger-on, Oliver T’sien, apparently also a cousin of Nick, Astrid and Eddie (it can be hard to keep track of the specifics of the relationships). Oliver is much less wealthy than everybody else, but he’s well-mannered and well-connected with a posh job in an auction house, and Kwan seems to approve of the way he manipulates Kitty into spending her money.
But perhaps this is taking it all too seriously. There are some good jokes in Rich People Problems, although to my mind the funniest line in the book, was not from Kwan, but from Paris Hilton. Rich People Problems is divided into four parts, each one introduced by quotes about money. Paris Hilton is the source of one of the quotes opening part 4: What’s a soup kitchen? This is of course not funny at all, except as an example of damning nitwittery from a fluffball heiress, and if Kwan had kept up the tone of sly mockery implied by his use of the quote, the novel might have felt more like a commentary on the corruption of its characters, and less like a breathless swoon before their glamor and moneyed élan, with a nod to social conscience at the end.
Rich People Problems is well and briskly written. But Kwan never misses a chance to mention a high-end brand you’ll only have heard of if you’re in with the in crowd, or to describe an outfit by some designer far too exclusive for the mere mass luxury market, so it sometimes feels as if you’re trapped between the pages of a glossy lifestyle magazine, and not reading a novel.
Still, if you’re looking for a book to while away the hours on a long flight, Rich People Problems would make an excellent choice, even if you’re not a member of the private jet set.