Book Review: Sex and Vanity

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan


On her first day on the island of Capri, Lucie Churchill (yes, one of those Churchills) sets her eyes on George Zao, and finds an instant attraction. They spend time together during her vacation, and ultimately she gives him up, torn between how her WASP family would view her relationship with an Asian man. Years later, Lucie is engaged and bumps into George. Sparks fly, but what does it mean?

Did Cecil write this? Because it completely sounds like something Cecil would write.

I feel like Kwan was trying too hard to recreate the success of Crazy Rich Asians while also doing a Jane Austen retelling within the upper stratospheres of rich WASP society, and it didn’t quite work.

It’s going to be a pop-up on Newtown Lane, right next to James Perse. We’re going to start small at first and offer an Ayurvedic juice bar, qigong, puppy yoga, breath work meditation, and maybe some sound healing. See what the community responds to.

I feel that part of the issue was he tried to do too much—a scathing expose of WASP racism, a Jane Austen retelling, some mixed media aspects, and recapturing the gossipy and catty tone of CRA, complete with its name-dropping of all the Right brands and some gauche-riche brands and everything else.

While I liked that he did rip into cultural appropriation and racial microaggressions, I felt like it didn’t go far enough? And that eventually the parody of the way white yogic gurus culturally appropriate, mutate, rebrand and sell back a traditional religion was…eventually also kinda adopted as okay in its ridiculousness?

I also felt that the first half was far too long. The summary made it feel like the first part in the past would be a brief prologue, but Capri was nearly half the book. The rest felt rushed and boring and artificial.

Plus the two leads were bland as mayonnaise.

Aside from her final moment, Lucie had absolutely no backbone or personal agenda. The lack of a backbone was completely justified based on her upbringing with her racist grandmother, who would dress her up in culturally inappropriate clothing as a child and call her her little China doll, but the lack of personal agenda was also…I dunno. She just went along with the flow the entire book, and did whatever was expected of her. She was something to everyone without ever feeling like a real person herself.

And George was…I could never get a good read on George. He was a self-named eco-warrior who fought for sustainable housing and eco-friendly other shit, but he never seemed to reflect on his own wealth or did anything about his family’s environmentally damaging shipping industry. He felt like a hypocrite in his own way, wearing the best clothing and jet-setting across the world while advocating for environmentally sustainable solutions for the lower classes. He was a champion surfer. A glorious specimen of man. A hippy dude. A billionaire focused on the environment while living the high life. Obsessed with architecture and the love of one woman. Basically, he was Leonardo diCaprio…minus the love of one woman thing.

I did appreciate the subtle shout outs to Crazy Rich Asians though.

It did do a fantastic job of capturing the racism and exclusionary practices of the upper, upper crust WASP community, and the name-dropping and scrabbling among the lesser wealthy to elevate their own status.

It did a decent job retelling Persuasion (I think this is the one it was retelling), what with Lucie refusing George because of his ethnicity and her interracial identity coupled with her upbringing and not wanting to further sully her family (her grandmother and family did a number on her), and a sex scandal that wasn’t—and then them meeting up all those years later and still having feelings for each other.

And Cecil was an absolute asshat—although one that you could kiiiiiiinda root for, since he was trying to break into the upper crust, so Kwan succeeded in that?

Overall, this wasn’t a bad book. I appreciate what it was trying to do, although it failed on the execution.

There was a lot of vanity, and not a whole lot of sex.

I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review

Sex and Vanity releases June 30, 2020, from Hutchinson

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