Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan is an entertaining read with low-stakes. Exactly what I needed!
I really enjoyed the Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy and the first movie is great as well! The stories are fun, over the top and a bit of commentary on a world of excess. But it never takes itself too seriously, which I much appreciated. Sometimes you just want an enjoyable book that will make you laugh.
With the huge success of the books and the movie, there was a lot of buzz for Kwan’s follow-up, Sex and Vanity. Could he match the success of his previous books? Let’s face it, the answer is no—Crazy Rich Asians is a one-of-a-kind sensation. Instead of trying to match that, Kwan wrote a fun story that is homage to A Room with a View.
On her very first morning on the jewel-like island of Capri, Lucie Churchill sets eyes on George Zao and she instantly can’t stand him. She can’t stand it when he gallantly offers to trade hotel rooms with her so that she can have a view of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she can’t stand that he knows more about Casa Malaparte than she does, and she really can’t stand it when he kisses her in the darkness of the ancient ruins of a Roman villa and they are caught by her snobbish, disapproving cousin Charlotte. “Your mother is Chinese so it’s no surprise you’d be attracted to someone like him,” Charlotte teases.
The daughter of an American-born Chinese mother and a blue-blooded New York father, Lucie has always sublimated the Asian side of herself in favor of the white side, and she adamantly denies having feelings for George. But several years later, when George unexpectedly appears in East Hampton, where Lucie is weekending with her new fiancé, Lucie finds herself drawn to George again. Soon, Lucie is spinning a web of deceit that involves her family, her fiancé, the co-op board of her Fifth Avenue apartment building, and ultimately herself as she tries mightily to deny George entry into her world–and her heart.
So prior to writing my review, I took a peek at other reviews and I saw a lot of negative ones. Many people criticizing the protagonist Lucie and feeling the story wasn’t complete. Here’s the thing with Kevin Kwan’s books—Rachel in Crazy Rich Asians is kind and sweet. Compared to the other characters, she serves as the “normal” one, which means she’s not as interesting by default. Even though I think Rachel was fine but the reality is that she shows no flaws.
Whereas Lucie does have quite a bit of flaws and is a mess in many ways. She’s embraced her white side more than her Asian side and in doing so, she’s limiting herself. Kwan writes about this in a very subtle way—there’s not huge grand scenes but a slow realization that she’s denied a part of who she really is.
This book is so low-stakes. Yes, there’s drama but the story is fairly simple and there’s not some huge tragedy that happens. And can I say what a relief that was? I’ve read some intense and really sad books lately. And this felt like a palate cleanser. Also, let me point out that the Capri setting at the beginning of the book is amazing!
I often say in these books that the romance will make-or-break the book. I liked it enough in this story. So Lucie is not thrilled with George in the beginning—she actively tries to avoid him. I saw people criticize this and are confused but if you follow the dots you see why. Kwan doesn’t beat people over the head with his subject matter but rather he’s very subtle with it.
The only thing I would say is that I wish there were a bit more scenes between Lucie and George—I think that could have been developed more. So that part is a little clumsy but still, I was completely satisfied by the ending.
If you’re looking for a fun, low-stakes read, I would give Sex and Vanity a try. The story is not as rich (no pun intended) as the Crazy Rich Asians series but I still found it enjoyable. Check out my book club questions here.