It has been seven years since Kevin Kwan’s ″Crazy Rich Asians″ took the world of escapist shopaholic fantasy by storm. That was so long ago that Kwan’s funniest Hong Kong arriviste, Eddie Chen, could use Astor, Trump and Vanderbilt as the names of his dogs. That book, which grew into a wildly popular trilogy and film franchise, made the Marie Antoinette-ing of the Singaporean super-rich both freakish and fascinating. So much about the extravagance and snobbery of the book’s clashing Asian elites was not globally known.
Now, with ″Sex and Vanity,″ Kwan is back — but Asia is not. Though this book also features an international cast of characters, with principals of partly Asian heritage, its compass aims at points farther west. It begins with a very touristy idyll in Capri, then goes back home to Manhattan and the Hamptons, with one eye on Hollywood at all times. The author conveniently casts a future film version with Armie Hammer, Alexander Skarsgard and (probably) Henry Golding as eye candy.
“Sex and Vanity” is what ″A Room With a View″ might have been if E.M. Forster’s characters had been micron-deep, Instagram-obsessed and unable to make conversation. To understand Kwan’s novel it’s probably best that you revisit Forster’s, or at least watch the Merchant Ivory film adaptation. (Kwan would be fine with that: At one point he mentions ″Elizabeth Merchant and Lord Ivory″ lunching with a princess.) Then you will know which Edwardian plot device Kwan has replaced with drones.
This author is savvy enough to preserve his winning formula, at least in pieces. He takes care to include an insanely lavish wedding, in this case early in the book.
He needs to get his heroine, Lucie Tang Churchill, to a picturesque setting so that a room with a view can be denied her. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch was denied that room in Florence, at the Pensione Bertolini, while traveling with her cousin Charlotte. They wanted to see the River Arno.
Kwan ups the ante with Capri, a hotel called the Bertolucci, drop-dead ocean vistas and an editor’s job for Charlotte in the Baron Snotte magazine empire.
Along comes Mr. Right and a parent, just as they did for Forster’s heroine. Once again this more privileged hunk is named George, and once again his parent ensures that a room exchange is made. But Forster’s George Emerson becomes Kwan’s George Zao, and as his mother puts it: ″We come from Hong Kong, where our flat overlooks the harbor. And we have a house in Sydney, in Watsons Bay, where we can see whales do back flips, and another beachfront house in Hawaii, in Lanikai. We get to see the ocean till we’re sick of it, so this is nothing to us.″
Did she mention that George is a champion surfer?
The view is meant to open up the world to Lucy/Lucie. So Kwan’s latter-day version trots around the most prestigious and breathtaking sights Capri has to offer.
In a section of the book that the author has said owes some inspiration to Conde Nast Traveler, you might find yourself frequently stopping to look up the landmarks. But neither Lucie nor any of her friends has anything smart or funny to say about their tourism. This is a surprise and a disappointment, because Kwan’s barbed insights made the earlier books so much fun.
Perhaps the world has changed more than he has. Maybe we’re not in the mood for a bookload of meringue.
At one truly awful moment, after the wedding has outdone all previous weddings and the principals are back in the Hamptons, the book’s resident jerk spouts this: ″Arcadia Mueffling has the Duke and Duchess of Ravenscourt over this weekend, and I could be at her stunning Atelier AM-designed house on Gin Lane drinking decent champagne and enjoying a special luncheon cooked by Jose Andres right now!″
Well, maybe not. Chef Andres has been serving charitable meals during the pandemic, making cooking videos for use during the quarantine, and addressing public-health issues that might arise on Election Day.
Raised in a lowly classic seven on Fifth Avenue, forced to carry a friend’s hand-me-down Chanel purse in the third grade, sore that her brother will inherit the big Hamptons house, Lucie finds herself stuck with a terrible lout and a bleak if big-budget future. And it takes her the better part of a whole book to figure out what most readers will conclude from its first pages. But consider this, as others have already suggested: There’s no other way you’re getting to Capri this summer. Here’s a ticket. Too bad it’s not first class.
“Sex and Vanity” (Doubleday, 336 pages, $26.95) by Kevin Kwan