Author: Kevin Kwan
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: May 2014
Number of Pages: 527 pages
Genre: Romance, Fiction, Comedy of Manners
When New Yorker Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home and quality time with the man she hopes to marry. But Nick has failed to give his girlfriend a few key details. One, that his childhood home looks like a palace; two, that he grew up riding in more private planes than cars; and three, that he just happens to be the country’s most eligible bachelor.
On Nick’s arm, Rachel may as well have a target on her back the second she steps off the plane, and soon her relaxed vacation turns into an obstacle course of old money, new money, nosy relatives, and scheming social climbers.
Dazzle, Dazzle or Frazzle
I just came up with one of the densest and the most difficult books that I have read. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun was complex to say the least but it is also a heartbreaking tale of a failed nation. To recover from the heaviness, I chose to read a lighter book next. Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians was practically waving at me. The intrigue was eating me up; it was recently adapted into a bestselling movie. Besides, it is part of my 2019 Top 20 Reading List.
In Crazy Rich Asians we meet the debonair Nicholas Young and his equally beautiful girlfriend, Rachel Chu. Both professors, they are leading a harmonious and undisrupted life in New York City. Everything was fine until Nick invited Rachel to his home country to attend his best friend’ wedding. Although she was hesitant at first, Rachel eventually acceded to the plan of spending their school break together. But Rachel was in for a surprise – the biggest surprise of her whole existence.
Kevin Kwan dazzles the readers with the opulent world of Asian high rollers and jetsetters. We meet the Leongs, the Youngs, the Shangs, the Chengs and a whole motley crew of the insanely rich. Kwan jetted the readers into a glittery world of extremely shimmery jewelries, incredibly palatial houses, insanely expensive dresses, and unbelievably volume of wealth.
“Doing nothing can sometimes be the most effective form of action. If you do nothing, you’ll be sending a clear message: that you’re stronger than they think you are. Not to mention a lot classier. Think about it.” ~ Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians
The book puts a proverbial microscope on the lives of Singapore’s uber rich. However, the book also delved into the several aspects of the Chinese culture. Affluent Chinese families have these obsession for family background checks before approving a family member’s marriage. They also practically institutionalized the need for pre-nuptial agreements. Intermarriage amongst the rich in order to expand family business is also a very common practice.
One of the funniest things I noted in the story is the prejudices rich migrant Chinese have against their fellow Chinese. Their fellow Chinese are congregated as to their origins – they have ABCs (American-born Chinese), the migrant Chinese, the Mainland Chinese, and the Taiwanese. I just find it ironic because if one is to trace the lineage of the those migrant Chinese, I am pretty sure that they’ll find a Mainland Chinese origin down their bloodline. Seriously, the obsession for one’s lineage is one of the most obnoxious characteristics of Chinese culture that I have encountered.
Kwan was also relentless in highlighting how the “old rich” perceive the “new rich”. He was impervious in glossing on its after effects to further thrum up the intrigue that forms the very foundation of the novel. Apart from the racial slurs, homophobia slurs and talks of cheating were also hemmed in into the story.
“Marriage was purely a matter of timing, and whenever a man was finally done sowing his wild oats and ready to settle down, whichever girl happened to be there at the time would be the right one.” ~ Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians
Beyond the opulence is Nick and Rachel. The integral incidents in the story are fringed on them. What I lament, however, is the lack of development of these two characters. They felt so… superfluous. Their actions, the way the communicate are laced with artifice. Nick, in particularly, was most of the time a caricature. Come on, it is difficult to believe Nick’s naivete vis-à-vis his family. It didn’t help that there was a pretentious quality wrapped around the interactions between the characters.
There were too many characters and most of them gave off the same impression. It is mayhaps attributable to the main subject of the story: wealth, masses of wealth. Wealth does have a patronizing way of altering one’s behavior. The only character that I felt gave a kind of connection with the readers is is Astrid. But even she was arbitrarily conceived by Kwan. It was also peevish how Kwan must identify from which family one is from every time a new character is named.
The story is very predictable and very formulaic. Kwan tried to fringe his story on shock effects. But this didn’t work in his favor. Yes, the main characters are rich: they fly private, they gamble incessantly, they have a different lifestyle. The generality of these realities reduced the impact Kwan wanted to do. His failure to go beyond the glittery lives of the characters made the story stand still rather than move forward.
Kwan fed his readers’ insatiable appetite for intrigue, gossips and entertainment. Ironically, it was these “delectable” elements that kept the story together (or kept the reader riveted). This aspect of the story fueled one’s curiosity. Kwan didn’t make the readers omniscient voyeurs peeking into the private world of the rich, rather he made the readers spectators, involving them with the story.
“I hate to point out the obvious, but here’s this tiny bird that’s been trying to get through a huge bulletproof glass wall. A totally impossible situation. You tell me it’s been here every day pecking away persistently for ten minutes. Well, today the glass wall came down.” ~ Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians
Beyond the overwhelming inanities (albeit the dry wit), one can glean the satire Kwan embedded deeply into the tapestry of his work. The satire and the humor made Crazy Rich Asians an entertaining read. However, entertaining doesn’t necessarily equate to a good read. The book will do for those who are looking for a hearty laugh but not for those who want a deeper interpretation of Asian culture.
I just wished that the book portrayed the dichotomy between the rich and the ones stuck in the quagmires of poverty . There were vestiges of it but the novel careened mostly on the prejudices and the paranoia. Then again, the book is supposed to be about the “crazy rich Asians”.
Kwan was relentless in filling the story with delectable details that he failed to incorporate elements of literature. Once the glittery lights die down, what remains are bits and pieces of a mundane gossip magazine. Still, hats off for an entertaining read. The book kept my anxieties at bay. Kwan knows where to hit the readers best.
The story has the makings of a Filipino drama – shallow characters, shallow plot, and tons of scandals. The question is, would I read the rest of the trilogy? The answer would be affirmative. I want to take part in the intrigue, too. If only to take a break from dense and heavy reads. Besides, I hate not completing things that I have started.
About the Author
(Photo by Goodreads) Kevin Kwan was born in Singapore into an affluent Chinese family. It was in Singapore that he spent his childhood, attending the Anglo-Chinese School. When he was 11, his family moved to the United States.
After graduating from Clear Lake High School, Kwan took up BA in Media Studies at the University of Houston – Clear Lake. He also took BFA in Photography at New York’s Parsons School of Design. While in New York, Kwan worked in several publications like Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, and Martha Stewart Living. Later on, in 2000, Kwan established his own creative studio.
Kwan’s writing career begun with his editing I Was Cuba (2007) which featured photographs collected by Ramiro A. Fernandez. In 2008, Luck: Essential Guide, a book he coauthored with Deborah Aaronson, was published. A year later, he got inspired to write his first novel, Crazy Rich Asians. The book was published in 2013 and was a sensation. He followed up his Crazy Rich Asians success by publishing its sequels, China Rich Girlfriend (2015) and Rich People Problems (2017).
In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians was adopted into the big screen. He currently lives in Manhattan.