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Sex and Vanity (2020)
Book Reviews

Sex and Vanity (2020)

Follows the exorbitant lives of the ultra-rich and how living according to someone else’s standards rarely works out in the end.

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A lot of indigent or middle-class people may look to the uber-rich and wish they’d also been born into money. But what they don’t see is the emotional suffering that happens behind the scenes. Sure, being able to have your private jet fueled and ready to go sounds fun, but if having such luxury means living up to your family’s WASP-y standards, it kinda takes away the shine. And if you’re a mixed-race woman born into money, things might be even more complicated when you don’t feel accepted by either side of your family.

This is the life Kevin Kwan portrays in his newest standalone release, Sex and Vanity, an homage to E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room with a View. Fresh from his Crazy Rich Asians book trilogy and movie fame, Kwan takes another dive into the lives of the ultra-rich to show how they’re really just like everyone else. They have problems too! Of course, their complications tend to be more emotional than financial.

Nineteen-year-old Lucie Churchill is from a long line of Churchills that date all the way back to the Mayflower, and her spinster cousin, Charlotte Barclay, never lets her forget it. During their vacation to Lucie’s friend’s wedding in the seductive Capri, she becomes enmeshed with a young Asian man, George Zao – someone completely inappropriate for her social standing. Their romance hits a peak as they’re caught in flagrante during the wedding party, captured on video by drones. Charlotte rushes Lucie back to New York before she’s ‘tainted’ even more.

Lucie is caught between pleasing her Churchill grandmother, the grande dame who rules her family with an iron fist, and learning to listen to her own heart. She believes she’s happy with her fiancé, Cecil, but still frets that her family won’t accept him for his nouveau-riche status as a billennial (billionaire+millennial). Even her mother, who has pedigrees as long as her arm, still isn’t accepted in the Churchill family because of her Asian background. The story showcases the underlying snobbery that can’t escape anyone – unless you’re descended from old (white) money.

The elitist obsession with schooling, couture designers, jewelry, art, cars, and name-dropping creates a crowded background from which Kwan swirls his characters in, so much so that he’s added a glossary to help clarify places, names, and gossip of the rich. Who knew there would be so much homework in a novel?

Live life according to other people’s standards and you risk ending up forgetting who you really are. Worrying about pleasing others versus what the heart really wants is a tale as old as time; it’s time to stop that. Life is short – live life on your own terms!

Sex and Vanity is the perfect summer escape that provides a behind-the-scenes look at how the ultra-rich live and what many of them endure to live up to their family’s standards. A nice break from his serialized novels, Kwan introduces the complicated racial elements involved when blending families from different cultures together with a seamless brush, evoking what it takes to be ‘accepted’ by the families from old money in an ever-changing world. His lesson is clear: maybe it’s time to stop concocting stories that are reliant on emotion and opinion rather than actual facts. Could be worth trying.

About the Author: Evelyn Wong