Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Friday, January 4, 2013

Friday, January 4, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Crazy Rich Asians


Doubleday: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Doubleday: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Doubleday: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians

by Kevin Kwan

A first-rate satire of first-class life, this fiction debut from renowned writer, photographer and visual consultant Kevin Kwan (I Was Cuba) manages to skewer the habits of both the discreetly and the conspicuously wealthy while posing serious questions about class divides and infusing the narrative with the trials and romanticism of young love. This hilarious send-up of the Asian jet set features good guys and gold-diggers, steely matriarchs and ruthless socialites, all with a heaping cup of opulence and a soupçon of Austenian sensibility.

Meeting your significant other's family for the first time is often a nerve-wracking experience, but for Rachel Chu, her potential in-laws are a surprise of jaw-dropping proportions. A down-to-earth ABC (American Born Chinese) career girl, Rachel has always imagined her boyfriend Nick's family to be average Singaporeans. When Nick invites her to join him for the summer in Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding, Rachel gets the shock of her life. As her friend Peik Lin says, "I have no idea who these people are. But I can tell you one thing--these people are richer than God." Nick comes from one of the wealthiest old money families on the island and, as his grandmother's favorite, he is heir apparent to the family fortune. Like any prince, Nick is expected to marry a girl of a certain class, and Rachel finds herself in a viper's nest of resentful young socialites and disdainful female relations. Nick's flamboyant cousin Oliver warns her that the aunties are ready to "pick you apart like a rotting carcass and serve you up as an amuse bouche." However, Rachel's greatest enemy is Nick's formidable and manipulative mother Eleanor, who is determined to stop wedding bells from ever ringing for the young couple--never mind that Nick hasn't even proposed.

Meanwhile, Nick's fashion-plate cousin Astrid, the It Girl of Singapore, has her own struggles with the class divide. Astrid loves her gorgeous middle-class husband, Michael, but she also loves the exhilaration of buying the latest designer fashions. An heiress with a hefty real estate portfolio who once famously jilted a rich fiancé, Astrid tries to hide her extravagant purchases from Michael, who feels emasculated that his wife can afford dresses worth more than their condo. When she discovers that Michael may be having an affair, Astrid is rocked back on her heels. Has she been fooling herself by believing she could find love with a man from another class?

Readers should come for the romance but stay for the distastefully extravagant stag and hen parties, the razor-sharp catty insults and untold extremes of class snobbery as Rachel's and Astrid's worlds spin out of control, leading to disastrous revelations that will change the way both women view themselves, their families and their relationships with the men they love.

American readers should take care when laughing at these crazy rich Asians. As Jonathan Swift said, "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." The dynamics between old money, the nouveau riche and the common classes have provided satirists fodder for centuries, and while it is easy to point fingers at habits on the other side of the globe, versions of the same class conflicts exist in every society. Astrid's marital difficulties are reminiscent of shifting gender roles in America as women begin to more commonly out-earn their male counterparts. Rachel's situation reflects the nightmare of everyone who "marries up"--that the spouse's family will never acknowledge their worth. Certainly the over-the-top displays of consumerist culture have a familiar ring to those of us who lived through Paris Hilton's heyday. Tempering these displays of excess with the genuine joys and struggles of young couples in love, Kwan has created a stylish and intricate piece of comedy with a tender heart and the habit-forming tendencies of a soap opera. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Doubleday, $25.95, hardcover, 9780385536974

Doubleday: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan


Kevin Kwan: The Ultimate Luxury

Born and raised in Singapore, Kevin Kwan received a BFA in Media Studies from the University of Houston before moving to New York to pursue a BFA in Photography at Parsons School of Design. Kwan has produced acclaimed visual books for Oprah Winfrey, Gore Vidal, Larry McMurtry and Elizabeth Taylor. He is the author of I Was Cuba (Chronicle, 2007) and the co-author of the special sales hit Luck: The Essential Guide (Collins, 2008). He lives in Manhattan and is at work on a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians, but took a few moments to talk to us about satire, fashion and the effects of consumerist culture.

Social comedy is a difficult genre. How do you use humor and satire effectively?

Direct observation! It doesn't hurt that the subject and milieu that I'm writing about lends itself so perfectly to satire. How can you take seriously a living room where there's a sunken pool in the middle filled with baby sharks? Or women that take dressing up more seriously than an Olympic sport? I was once at a pool party where this Chinese society matron arrived in head-to-toe Yves Saint Laurent. A velvet Le Smoking jacket, scarlet trousers with a crease so sharp you could cut your finger on it, this ginormous Queen Mother diamond brooch, and diamond chandelier earrings. It's in the middle of the afternoon, everyone else is in shorts and t-shirts, and this woman is wearing an avalanche of diamonds, standing by the barbecue grill. Being exposed to scenes like this, I almost feel like I have an unfair advantage. I also have the benefit of learning from some of my favorite writers--E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton, Julian Fellowes and of course Jane Austen--all of whom brilliantly deploy humor to depict the social intricacies and absurdities of their set.

Where did you draw your inspiration for powerful matriarchal characters?

There's an impression in the West that Asia is a male-dominated culture, but the opposite is often true. In my experience, the husbands may be the ones who go out and make the fortune, but they bring the money home and the wives end up controlling it. Home is the nexus of social life in Asia, and this is where the women have traditionally wielded their power. They rule the social scene, and they decide who gets in and who doesn't. Growing up in Singapore, it seemed like I was always surrounded by these strong, amazing women, so there was no shortage of inspiration.

Was it difficult to balance the more serious aspects of this story with the humorous?

In Asia it often seems that the extremes are amplified. People are either making millions by the minute, or the stock market is tanking. A couple is blissfully happy one day and launching a nuclear war against each other the next. Even though the book is staged like a jet-setting romp, I wanted to show both extremes while exploring some wrenching terrain and issues--rampant materialism, infidelity, religious hypocrisy--to name a few. But my hope is that by approaching these elements through comedy, adding a dash of lightness and absurdity, we could open these issues to further examination.

You drop designer names skillfully throughout the narrative. Were you a fashion follower prior to writing Crazy Rich Asians?

I've always had an interest in fashion. From a young age I developed an obsessive interest in fashion history, and later I went to Parsons School of Design in New York, originally focusing on fashion photography. I also worked for Interview magazine, where I assisted on fashion shoots and cured myself of ever wanting to be fashion photographer. I realized that working in fashion was draining my love for it, so these days I prefer to simply be a spectator. I think that fashion has always been in my DNA--I come from a family where both the men and the women take their clothes very seriously. My grandparents were always exceedingly stylish, with an elegance and an attention to detail that you just can't replicate anymore. And all of my mother's clothes were tailored for her, so much of my childhood was spent tagging along at her fittings, and usually falling asleep amongst the towering bolts of fabrics.

What's your personal take on consumerist culture?

I find myself fascinated and appalled by consumerist culture, especially by the degree to which many Asian consumers have become fixated on acquiring brand name objects. I've personally witnessed some of the most mind-boggling shopping sprees, where someone spends more in a single day than I make in a year. The scale of spending is absolutely unprecedented--Asian consumers now account for 70% of the international luxury goods market. When you go to Hong Kong, you see lines of people mostly from Mainland China camped outside places like Louis Vuitton and Gucci every day, waiting to rush in and buy up everything in sight. To me, there's clearly something underlying all of this behavior. This insatiable hunger to acquire and flaunt all the trappings of wealth is a reflexive, pent up reaction to decades of suffering and deprivation under the old communist regime. I think this phenomenon of the Crazy Rich Asian consumer is only in its infancy, and as it continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see what effect it will have on the culture at large. Because the flip side of this conspicuous consumption is that great craftsmen and artisans are being supported, and companies that might otherwise have gone under have been able to thrive.

I think that readers might be surprised to know that for the all the brand name dropping that occurs in my book, I actually go out of my way to avoid wearing anything with logos or labels, and I'm more of a minimalist at heart. For me, the ultimate luxury is having as few things as possible, and my only real extravagance is books. I have way too many books. --Jaclyn Fulwood


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