Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan // Book Review

Sex and Vanity seemed to have taken the lives of those crazy rich Asians we read about in his first series and brought them to American soil. But with the change in scenery, the story needed to change as well. What would a blue blooded Chinese American look like? How would the world react if there was one of us among them? Kevin Kwan definitely answers those questions in this new novel.

sex and vanityLucie Churchill was just invited to the wedding of the century. She alongside her cousin, Charlotte, jet off to Capri for a few days of bliss and topped with an extravagant wedding. They immerse themselves in the culture, basking in the beautiful coastlines of Italy while eating deliciously described foods. When she’s in Capri, she meets George Zao. For all intents and purposes, George sounds like the kind of guy you would most definitely catch and keep forever. A hottie with a 12-pack who loves surfing and the environment? He’s also got money and ambitions and loves art and appreciates beautiful music? He’s also putting others first? He loves his mother? Did I mention he was hot? I’m sorry, but if Lucie doesn’t want him, can I have him?

And at this point in the novel, Lucie most definitely doesn’t want him. After seeing how Charlotte reacts to George and his mother, Rosemary’s, behavior and then the fatal kiss between Lucie and George at the wedding, it’s no wonder that Lucie doesn’t want anything to do with George. Being with George would mean ridicule and torment for not only marrying into an eccentric family, but also marrying into a Chinese family.

Five years later, nothing’s changed. Lucie is engaged and ready to marry into one of the wealthiest families in America. Now that she’s engaged to a socialite, her priorities are changing as well. It’s planning her opulent wedding, renovating her multi-million dollar townhouse in New York with her fiance, and spending time with her mother and brother as these two families start to get to know each other.

But there’s no way to pull herself out of the attraction with George especially when George shows up everywhere she goes and their families start to get closer.

My thoughts

For the most part, this is most definitely a story about love, friendship, and family. The coastal scenes of Capri and even their vacation in East Hampton will definitely wish you were on vacation right now.

However, Kevin Kwan is super clever and he added a little something extra to make this story just as authentic as he could make it. He talks about racism. Lucie’s experiences with racism are so obvious that you can’t read this book without noticing them. Within 20 pages, you already have Charlotte introducing Lucie to some friends emphasizing how she’s half-Chinese and she’s related through her “American” father (despite her mother being born in Seattle). From that moment on, it was a series of microaggressions throughout the rest of the novel. As Kevin Kwan describe it, they’re like little paper cuts that sting every time you hear them. I think that’s the perfect metaphor for it and what you see over the course of this book.

I really loved Lucie. She was a brilliant artist who didn’t like to make a splash the way her fiance did. She was understated and that just made her shine. I loved the way she would light up when she spoke about art and when she heard her favorite piano concerto. I felt deeply for her when she recalls the day her dad died. However, Lucie kept a lot to herself and kept up appearances frequently. She most definitely hid away her feelings especially when faced with her family. She even suppressed with her fiance. There was a lot of hiding for Lucie especially when it came to outward appearances and how you look in front of others. I felt for her in those moments and know that life a little too well.

And Lucie gets it from everyone. From the wealthy family friend who asks if she sides with her Chinese side or her American side more to the Filipino sisters who asks her specific ethnicity (if you didn’t know, there’s a lot of racism within the Asian countries) to see if she’s one of them. She gets it from her fiance who is always trying to “fix” her the same way her grandmother used to try and “fix” her as well. There’s even some internalized racism from her own mother that’s most definitely had an impact on her life. I found myself asking how do you navigate when the people you’re supposed to trust and love you unconditionally find fault because of your Asian heritage?

I did like the conversation Lucie and Charlotte have about her racism towards the end of the novel, but I also felt like Charlotte was gaslighting her a little bit. I don’t want to say that Charlotte didn’t learn anything or felt the embarrassment of being racist toward her own cousin, but I would have really liked to see Charlotte own up for her mistakes in the past. I also truly appreciated the conversation she has with her mother. It was good to finally hear her perspective in Lucie’s life, but honestly, I felt like these conversations should have unpacked more. Half of Lucie’s existence was hidden to avoid ridicule and distaste. I wonder why Kevin Kwan didn’t put more discussion around this.

I would have loved to see more of George and the discussion regarding racism with him. I know being born and raised in Hong Kong is a different experience than being born and raised in New York City, but I can imagine George struggling through some daily conversations with Westerners and Americans who don’t understand or appreciate the culture he came from. I wanted George and Lucie to have a much deeper conversations regarding it or any conversation outside of how they’re going to hide their feelings.

To be honest, this was the part that kind of annoyed me the most about this book; the relationship between George and Lucie. I feel like George would have brought insight or at least opened Lucie’s eyes a bit if their relationship was allowed to grow on the page. Much of their encounters are met with either sexual tension or just tension, which made their relationship questionable at the end. It didn’t necessarily need to be the main part of the story like a true romance, but I would have liked there to be more conversations between the two even if it was in the friendly sense.

The only other issue I had was the pacing. The entire book seemed to read quite laid back. It wasn’t necessarily slow, but there wasn’t a lot of events that would keep you turning the page (at least for me). But within the last 50 pages, everything picked up. Characters started acting out of character and my hopes for a bigger discussion on the racism components were truncated to a few simple paragraphs. It felt rushed and tidy, which made the ending less fun for me.

Overall, a great book that would start some interesting convos in book clubs. I might actually suggest this one for my own book club. I would love to chat with folks about this one!

I received a copy of this book from Doubleday for free in exchange for an honest review. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.

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