A review by Nalini Haynes
We all know people obsessed with status and wealth. Four years ago, my husband and I sat down to lunch with – let’s call him Joe. Joe promptly told us – repeatedly over the course of two lunches – that his wife earns 6 figures. “And HIGH six figures, not low”. (I think he meant $150,000 to $200,00, not over half a million a year. With half a million plus, Joe would have bought a different audience.) He went on and on about their investment properties but not their debt levels. My husband and I struggled to avoid each other’s gazes and not roll our eyes. We all know people like this, and those with carefully crafted social media personas, obsessed with wearing the latest fashion and the perfect selfie. Sex and vanity.
Now imagine those people as billionaires and millionaires.
Lucie Churchill is half-Chinese but all American. She meets another half-Chinese, the half-Australian George, at a romantic week in Capri. After a (hilariously) disastrous incident, she doesn’t see George again and nor does she want to. Her family has CONNECTIONS. And WEALTH. Lucie is determined to live up to their expectations and find acceptance in this WASP establishment. But her fiance! He makes Joe look good by comparison.
Kwan embeds race and racism into the narrative subtly and without preaching. He exposes the racism of the white family with the “errant” son who married a ground-breaking geneticist who happened to be Chinese American, thus producing half-Chinese offspring. The white family sees the half-Chinese but not the 100% American child. So they try to fix her.
There’s nothing quite like new money attached to an insensitive arrogant boor for cringe comedy and yet Kwan makes us cringe without going overboard. I prefer more restrained comedies, less Coming to America and more, well, more in the British style. Think Colin Firth’s Pride and Prejudice.
The flip side is that poor people and normal people tend to be merely furniture in this comedy. However, the boor’s mistreatment of servers does not go unchallenged. Kwan parses what it is to be a decent person, segregating those traits from wealth and class. Although, notably, I did not notice any billionaires in the novel who were not arrogant entitled reprehensible excuses for human beings. But then, I do not think it is possible for anyone to accumulate such wealth without being an arrogant entitled reprehensible excuse for a human being. Remember how the original Sabrina (1954) movie asked why Bogart would want to accumulate more wealth. His response was that he was paying for hospitals, schools, putting shoes on children’s feet and so forth. In contrast, the 1995 version that is, mostly, a scene-by-scene remake, omitted all of that because times had changed. By the nineties, millionaires dodged their civic duties instead of paying taxes and instead of paying their employees a living wage. Kwan is insightful in Sex and Vanity.
Kevin Kwan is the new Oscar Wilde with added racial overtones and hints of social issues like egregious consumption. I adored Crazy Rich Asians although I confess I’ve only seen the movie. That moment when the Asian woman buys the hotel after the bigoted night manager turns her and her children out into the cold rain… that sealed me forever as a Kevin Kwan fan. And that was only the beginning. What can I say? I’m Australian, I root for the underdog. And I love it when prejudice ensnares bigots.
Throughout Sex and Vanity I felt that this was the new Importance of Being Ernest, a play I studied in high school that reappears, like the Judi Dench version, to entertain anew.
Kevin Kwan knocked it out of the park again with Sex and Vanity, a comedy of manners with an entrancing leading lady and a reprehensible fiance. The settings are idyllic when they’re not hilarious, fashion p0rn abounds, and the character interplay is hilarious. Racial and class dynamics raise this novel to the pinnacle of writerly achievement: entertaining and thought-provoking, possibly even (shock, horror!) educational. All that remains is to make it into a movie. I’ll be first in line to the cinema, kthanksgo.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Imprint: Hutchinson (Penguin Random House)
Format: Trade Paperback, 368 pages
Category: humor, comedy, social comment, race