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Wednesday, August 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Book review: Kevin Kwan moves on with ‘Sex and Vanity,’ but the characters are still crazy rich

UPDATED: Sun., July 5, 2020

By Angela Haupt Special To The Washington Post

The wedding of the summer is still on – and you’d have to be crazy rich not to squeal in vicarious wonder at its opulence.

Custom-made Givenchy gowns. White truffle and caviar pizza. Millions of rose petals turned into a decadent carpet at a secluded villa.

Kevin Kwan’s new stand-alone novel, “Sex and Vanity” – following his wildly popular “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy – opens at this over-the-top affair in Capri, Italy, before whisking readers off to the Hamptons. That’s a change of scenery for the author, whose previous books were largely set in Singapore and Hong Kong. But Kwan again delivers a set of ridiculously rich characters who are mostly Asian or Asian American.

“Sex and Vanity,” a play on E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel “A Room With a View,” begins at the nuptials of two “international ooh-la-las,” the son of an Italian count and a Taiwanese heiress. Among the attendees: 19-year-old protagonist Lucie Churchill and her cousin Charlotte, who’s chaperoning her so she doesn’t tarnish the family name. Lucie is a “hapa” – half Chinese, half WASP – and is instantly both drawn to and repelled by another guest, George Zao. By the end of the wedding reception, the two have accidentally consummated their attraction in public, much to Charlotte’s horror.

Fast-forward five years, and Lucie is engaged to Cecil Pike, “the man that Vulture, BuzzFeed and The Skimm had proclaimed ‘The Most Eligible Gentleman on the Planet.’ ” He’s unbearable, a nouveau riche who clashes with Lucie’s old-money family. Still, she’s wearing a $26.5 million ring on her finger when George appears in New York, stirring up long-suppressed desires. As their worlds collide, Lucie goes to baffling extremes to punt George back out of her orbit.

Some of the novel’s most entertaining – and outlandish – scenes come at Cecil’s expense: He proposes to Lucie via a flash mob that includes a troupe of street dancers, ballerinas and a marching band in full regalia. Later he renovates their home so it includes, among other features, a Venetian canal in the living room and a tri-level infinity pool with a glass bottom so you can see straight into the wine cellar. “Can’t I please call in a helicopter?” he implores Lucie while attempting to flee from a family gathering.

Part of the novel’s fun is that Kwan is in on the joke: He excels at satirizing the uber-rich. He’s also an Olympic-level name-dropper. If I had a dollar for every reference to an A-list designer or brand mentioned here, I’d be – well, still not a fraction as wealthy as these characters. The women fly to Paris for couture fittings; the men dispense brand-new Aston Martins as casual make-up gifts after a couple’s fight. We meet “billenials” (billionaire millennials) and “mocialites” (male socialites).

The characters deliver digs as only a one-percenter could: “It looks like a Versace dress exploded all over my room,” Charlotte complains about a subpar hotel. There are references to being born at the “only acceptable” hospital, and each character’s introduction is paired with a parenthetical detailing his or her education. Lucie’s pedigree, for example: “92nd Street Y Nursery School/Brearley/Brown.”

Kwan’s trademark snark, which hooked “Crazy Rich Asians” fans, remains on display in this new offering. As in his earlier novels, his flippant footnotes are at times more enticing than the story line itself. When one wealthy woman remarks, “It’s because of my Chinese blood that I haven’t needed a facelift yet,” Kwan follows up with an aside: “She’s lying, of course. She had a facelift and necklift back in 2000.”

Though Kwan hints at the complexities of being mixed-race, there’s no deep, meaningful takeaway buried in the story. Few of the characters are particularly likable, and they’re certainly not relatable. The relationship between Cecil and Lucie never makes sense, and Lucie’s aversion to admitting her feelings for George isn’t convincing. While the luxurious scenery helps overshadow some of these shortcomings, the novel lacks the pizazz that made “Crazy Rich” so successful.

Still, come for vacuous entertainment, and “Sex and Vanity” delivers. It’s all style and little substance – unfathomably expensive style, which can be gratifying for those with an appetite for rich-people problems. At a time when travel plans have been jettisoned or postponed, the novel offers a fun-filled vacation to a world marred only by the most trivial concerns. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and readers who follow suit can revel in the kind of extravagances that sound like a dream after months of isolation and anxiety during the coronarvirus pandemic.

It’s like a bubbly glass of expensive champagne: It goes down easy, but don’t expect to remember it the next day.

Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and full-time health editor in Washington, D.C.

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