“Sex and Vanity” by Kevin Kwan

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In Kevin Kwan’s new blockbuster (for such it is universally expected to be), cousins half-Chinese/half old money WASP Lucie Honeychurch and WASPy Charlotte Barclay travel to Capri, where they encounter a Hong Kong Chinese mother and son duo, Rosemary and George Zao … 

Alert readers may have already noticed the not even slightly oblique reference to—the Jane Austen-y title notwithstanding—EM Forster’s A Room With a View, in which Lucy Honeychurch travels to Florence with her older cousin and chaperon, Charlotte Bartlett, where they meet the Emersons, a father and son. All hell then breaks loose in both novels.

Kwan’s appreciation of the way Forster poked fun of the class-conscious upper crust English is evident from the degree to which he follows much of the storyline. Kwan pays further homage to A Room With a View with direct references to Forster’s novel as well as the 1985 Merchant Ivory film adaptation. (He also brings back a character from his Crazy Rich Asians trilogy for a quick cameo during the wedding in Capri.)

But Kwan takes his story a step further and addresses the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the West, something that didn’t arise much in his earlier books, populated as they were with all-Asian casts of characters and set for the most part in Asia.

 

Sex and Vanity, Kevin Kwan (Doubleday, June 2020)
Sex and Vanity, Kevin Kwan (Doubleday, Hutchinson, June 2020)

Some of the most stirring moments of the book occur when Kwan appears to address microaggressions against Asians, particularly within one’s own family. In one of many examples, the Eurasian Lucie remembers—in a flashback—when her paternal grandmother would order a servant to tame Lucie’s wild hair and dress her in ways that screamed “other”.

 

Why don’t we use some coconut oil to slick it down and get rid of the frizz that way? It’ll give it some gloss. Then we can give her braids on either side, and she can wear my Lacroix dragon jacket like it’s a robe. If we can’t make her look like other girls, let’s give her the china doll look. Lucie, remember how we used to play china doll? You’re going to be my precious little Chinese empress at the party tonight.

 

Kwan recognizes that it’s not only Asians that suffer. For example, Charlotte cannot speak aloud that she has dated a Jewish man: when telling Lucie about her ex-boyfriend, she silently mouths the word “Jewish”, as if it were inappropriate to say above a whisper.

Chinese cultural practices come with explanations, perhaps for readers who remain uninitiated, as when Lucie explains to her white cousin the “Chinese auntie thing”, or the respectful way of addressing one’s elders. Lucie also explains to Charlotte the commotion over paying the bill at lunch. When Charlotte wonders if Chinese aunties try to avoid paying the bill, as she often manages to do when out with friends and family, Lucie humorously sets her straight.

 

No, Charlotte, they’re all fighting to pick up the whole check! They screech at each other, play tug-of-war over the bill, or try to bribe the waiter not to let anyone else pay. Apparently it’s considered good manners to make a big show of it…

 

Woven into these teaching moments is Kwan’s signature extravagance. At the wedding in Capri, the father of the groom’s announcement before dinner is pure Kwan:

 

We are here in one of the oldest buildings in Capri, and to me the most beautiful. It was built in 1371 on the orders of Count Giacomo Arcucci on land donated by my ancestor Queen Giovanna D’Angio of Napoli as a sanctuary for the Carthusian monks. Tonight as we take sanctuary together in this sacred place, we are very lucky to have with us the maestro Niccolo Miulli leading the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, who will be accompanying the incomparable Dame Kiri Te Kanawa!

 

If he took potshots at Singapore in Crazy Rich Asians, this time Kwan takes aim at the city-state’s perennial competitor in just about everything. “George isn’t really that bad,” but Rosemary Zao stands out in Capri as a flamboyant woman that others characterize as “too Hong Kong”:

 

She’s the most vulgar thing that ever walked the planet. She dresses like she’s about to lip-synch for her life on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

No prior knowledge of the novel’s literary inspiration is required

Kwan’s fun with Forster notwithstanding, Sex and Vanity isn’t merely a rewrite of A Room With a View; reminiscent of Kwan’s earlier novels, it showcases his talent for creating flamboyant characters and settings that anyone can enjoy: no prior knowledge of the novel’s literary inspiration is required. At the same time, it’s also a timely story that pokes not too gently at some of society’s less tractable flaws.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.