The easiest way to describe the summer book Crazy Rich Asians is: It’s like Gossip Girl, but with Asians. It has all the hallmarks of Manhattanite/chick lit stories: drama, infighting, backbiting, world travel, designer labels — and money. Lots of money. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Kevin Kwan looks like an Asian Chuck Bass in his author photo.
Kwan immerses us into the world of Chinese, and primarily Singaporean, families who are crazy-wealthy (and also just a little bit crazy). We’re talking every-child-owns-nine-apartments, every-parent-has-enough-cash-to-buy-a-company-in-minutes kind of wealth. And this isn’t new money — the families are pedigreed and pretentious, just as obsessed with genealogy as they are about real estate holdings. It’s the younger generation who just might be their saving grace, as they fall in love with people their parents don’t approve of.
Crazy Rich Asians is certainly a “beach book.” I enjoyed it, but it spends too much time with designer labels and too little time on plot development, and the huge cast of characters can be tough to follow. On the other hand, I liked that the characters weren’t too campy or vapid, and it was fun to get a peek into another culture.
The Westernization of Asian society is a huge theme in the book, and it’s interesting to see the tug of war between tradition and modernization play out in these families. Most all their children are sent to school in England or America, and everyone speaks English in addition to Mandarin (and other languages). One of the strangest elements is how so many of these characters practice Christianity in a way that’s almost identical to American evangelicals. In one scene, a character meets her boyfriend at church camp while sitting around a campfire and singing “Pass It On.” I had an incredibly similar experience, except, in my case, the boy bought me an ice cream bar from the snack bar — my fictional Asian counterpart got a closet full of couture.
Crazy Rich Asians is sometimes silly and can be a bit slow-moving, but it’s often insightful and interesting. As much fun as Kwan has with wealth, in the end it’s exposed for what it really is — a tool that can build up but more often tears down. Love prevails, mostly, and the nasty characters get, if not a total comeuppance, at least a taste of their own medicine. It’s not going on my classics shelf any time soon, but it’s a solid addition to the beach bag.