(and isn’t afraid to tell)
Last summer, sick out of my mind and bound to my mother’s living room couch, I devoured the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy in a week, with one hand flipping the pages, one hand carelessly dabbing 7-11 sushi into a soy sauce dish. This summer I did the same with Sex and Vanity, except with a bottle of Albert Heijn wine and a clearance section cheese platter, just to, you know, class it up a little.
Kevin Kwan’s Sex and Vanity is a homage to 1908’s A Room with a View (though betterknown for its 1985 film adaptation). Sex and Vanity moves away from the social scene in Asia and to Kwan’s own stomping grounds in New York. With Sex and Vanity being the first of a three-part series, Kwan plans to explore London and Paris next, dabbling in each of their distinct orbs of glitz and glamour.
Sex and Vanity’s protagonist Lucie Tang Churchill (yes, *that* Churchill) is no stranger to the glitz and glamour. Born to a Chinese mother and a WASP father, Lucie is a ‘hapa’ (a Hawaiian word used to refer to someone of mixed ethnic ancestry). While she grows up with a taste of both worlds, she always finds herself favoring her European heritage over her Asian ancestry. In an obvious but happily-indulged parallel, just like how she is between two cultural worlds, she is stuck between two men (*eyeroll*, but it could be worse): George Zao, her rich friend Isabel’s cousin, an attractive and affluent Chinese-Australian surfer whom she resents, but not as much as she resents herself for being so attracted to him; and Cecil Pike, the total package, ‘the most eligible gentleman on the planet’, who just happens to be her finacé. Lucie knows that Cecil is the man she should be getting married to, but as she crosses paths with George again, she can’t help but wonder if she’s marrying the right man.
Kwan is best known for his Crazy Rich Asians book trilogy and soon-to-be film trilogy. When I first read Crazy Rich Asians, the characters and storylines were outright camp, but their fully-developed, unapologetic outrageousness felt true to the characters and their extraordinary backgrounds. While the dizzying plots werelike an amusement park ride for me, these jeweled dramas were just a stroll in a park for them. Kwan’s knack for character and world-building made the stories he grew up knowing compelling and human to all. Not only are his books page-turners, but the characters and worlds he builds translate beautifully on film. And, let’s be real - it’s hard to empathize with gazillionaires right now. Somehow, Kwan draws forth our instinct human connection with his characters, anyways. In recognition of this, Sony Pictures bought the film rights to Sex and Vanity within two weeks of its release. (I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again! Cast!! me!!)
Kwan’s portrayal of exorbitant wealth in the times of ‘eat the rich’ doesn’t come off as insensitive or tone-deaf, since he is very much in on the joke and the absurdity of it all. Kwan recognizes the ludicrous behavior of those who sit on inordinate wealth and power. He doesn’t celebrate their material riches, but consciously criticizes them for allowing wealth and power to consume them. Sex and Vanity is no exception, and he ridicules his characters for prioritizing appearance over substance: it doesn’t matter who you really are if everyone thinks you’re someone else.
Sex and Vanity’s best moments are when Lucie is forced to self-examine and reflect on her internalized racism, and for those who grew up between a rock and a hard place —the East and the West, they are no stranger to this third culture tension. Kwan had gained insight through his biracial friends, but drew inspiration from himself as well, having spent his adolescence in Singapore, and later his adult years in New York, forging his own ways to navigate between the two worlds.
I am certain that many of those who grew up between the East and the West, especially the ones who are biracial can understand the struggle of picking between the two worlds. Too often or not, Asian people are told to downplay their Asianness around non-Asian people. Whether it's on our college applications, or out in public, we are expected to dial down our Asianness in order to be accepted.
Lucie’s tie to her Chinese heritage is anchored solely upon her mother, yet her mother seems to suppress conspicuous demonstrations of their culture. . Throughout Sex and Vanity, it is evident that Lucie is intrigued by and infatuated with George largely due to a deprived, complex relationship with her Chinese side.
Everything about George is different from the world she had grown up in: he has a bigger heart than anyone she knows, he is unapologetically himself, and isn’t afraid of stepping other people’s toes. In Lucie’s first introduction to him, he makes a selfless gesture of offering to trade hotel rooms with her, a total stranger at the time, just so she could have a view of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
However, it is worth noting that despite the two characters and what they represent work so perfectly for storytelling purposes, there seems to be a lack of genuine connection between the two. Although there are moments of undeniable chemistry and sparks, they had a hard case of convincing me that George should be the one.
What stood out to me in Kwan’s writing from both the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy and Sex and Vanity is its loudness. Everything demands your attention; there are often too many details to pay attention to, and I often felt unsure about what I should be focusing on. Kwan’s love for name-dropping designers in a scene sometimes takes me out of it. This level of consciousness about being rich and doing ‘rich things’ even feels unnatural at times. While it worked more sophisticatedly in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy as we were guided by outsiders Rachel Chu and Kitty Pong, it comes off forced when we navigate through Lucie Churchill, a supposed native to the rich.
In truth, Sex and Vanity is like a five-star hotel’s all-you-can-eat buffet: it might seem overwhelming at first, but anything you manage put on your plate, you will love.