‘Sex and Vanity,’ Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan’s clever, juicy homage to E.M. Forster
If there’s an upside to our historic levels of income inequality, it’s the return of the class-driven comedy of manners, updated for the twenty-first century by Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan. His new book, the unambiguously titled Sex and Vanity, is a contemporary remix of A Room with a View, E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel about uptight Edwardians behaving badly during a sun-drenched sojourn in Italy, then confronting the consequences back home. More accurately, it’s an homage to the 1985 Merchant Ivory movie adaptation of the novel, laden with Easter eggs for fans of the film: a striped rowing blazer, a skinny-dipping session, a Kiri Te Kanawa cameo.
Forster was all about suggestion and subtle wit. Kwan’s style is not for everyone. Certainly no one would confuse its incessant name-dropping, snarky one-liners, and characters that are collections of private school pedigrees and designer labels more than substance, with E.M. Forster. But Sex and Vanity is surprisingly faithful to its source material, and both authors fixate on class and heterosexual courtship, two things that clearly haven’t evolved much since the Edwardian Era. Reputations are just as fragile in the age of social media as they were at the turn of the last century, and petty slights are equally consequential among those who only have “rich people problems,” to quote the title of Kwan’s last novel.
Along with the Merchant Ivory overtones, there’s a hint of Mamma Mia! zaniness to the plot, which is similarly centered around a destination wedding on a Mediterranean island; Kwan substitutes the tony Italian enclave of Capri for tourist-trap Greece. The bride, Isabel, is a Taiwanese plastics heiress raised in New York, now leading a glamorous life in film production in Los Angeles. The groom, Dolfi, is the polo-playing son of an Italian count, with the “perfect patrician profile” that “comes only to people born to Roman families that have spent at least fifteen generations drinking water straight out of their ancient aqueducts.”
If the relationship seems manufactured for maximum culture-clash value, it hardly matters; the nuptials are simply a narrative excuse to bring together a quirky assortment of guests in a picturesque foreign locale, just as Forster’s Florence pensione was. The wedding week itinerary promises free-flowing Bellinis and a packed schedule of over-the-top events, each with their own dress codes, including “beach chic” and “resort chic” as well as “formal” and “informal.”
Part of the fun of Sex and Vanity is seeing how Kwan modernizes Forster’s Edwardian archetypes: innocent English rose Lucy Honeychurch becomes Lucie Tang Churchill, a posh Chinese-American college student and childhood friend of the bride. Bohemian Mr. Emerson becomes brash, crazy rich Hong Kong matron Mrs. Zhao; the Reverend Mr. Beebe is now an “impossibly photogenic” yoga master, life coach, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Preppie Guru. Kwan reimagines the racy novel-within-a-novel Under a Loggia as “a Bollywood musical meets Italian neorealist cinema mash-up set in Tuscany.”
Best of all, Lucie’s cousin Charlotte—or “Madam Buzzkill,” as she’s nicknamed—is a fortysomething editor at Amuse Bouche magazine, part of the Barón Snotté Publishing empire. It’s easy to believe that a modern version of Forster’s prim, middle-aged chaperone would have Dancing With the Stars as her guilty pleasure.
But you don’t have to be a Forster fan to enjoy Kwan’s biting satire of the private-jet set, or the kind of unapologetic food, travel, and fashion porn that made his Crazy Rich Asians trilogy such fun. “Capri is rather intoxicating isn’t it?” Charlotte asks Lucie. “It lulls your inhibitions, seduces you, and makes you do crazy, impulsive things. Look at me—I never in my life thought I’d eat this many carbs in one week!” Meanwhile, the gorgeous, enigmatic George Zhao, a fellow wedding guest, intoxicates Lucie. Their flirtation culminates in a scandal involving a drone and some al fresco nookie at the reception. While Charlotte springs into damage-control mode, Lucie rationalizes: “They were both victims of Capri. Yes, victims swept up by all that beauty and history and achingly romantic, Instagrammable moments of Issie’s wedding.”
Back in New York
As in Forster’s novel, the action resumes years later; Lucie is back in New York, “a rising art consultant who’s on the speed-dial of every wannabe Mugrabi,” and engaged to the “Armie Hammer handsome” Texas oil heir Cecil Pike, her youthful indiscretion with George seemingly forgotten. Cecil is a billionaire bro and “mocialite” (male socialite) who flatters the old-money establishment to their faces then gossips about them behind their backs. He doesn’t ski, but goes to Gstaad every year “to do the season.” He matches his clothes to his vintage Ferrari and subjects Lucie to Downton Abbey-themed sex games. His West Village townhouse has a truffle vault, an Infinity Mirror powder room, and an indoor canal (for the gondola). Forster’s Cecil was a pretentious aesthete who wanted to collect Lucy like a Leonardo; Kwan’s “just wants to post beautiful, hot pictures” of Lucie for Instagram likes.
Both Cecils are comically insufferable, but Kwan’s Lucie—a people-pleaser whose mixed race has always made her feel like an outsider on both the Chinese-American and the wealthy WASP sides of her family—identifies with her fiancé’s nouveau-riche inferiority complex. “It made him slightly uncomfortable whenever his mother talked of her past,” Cecil muses. “In his mind, he liked to imagine that she was born on an elegant plantation in Louisiana, the descendant of a family with roots stretching back to the Valois kings of France.” In truth, Mrs. Pike is “the illegitimate daughter of Charles Mouton, who owned a trio of Conoco service stations, and Marcia Nuncio, who worked the front register at one of the stations and hailed from a family of oil refinery works from Corpus Christi.”
Lucie also hopes to impress her low-key-racist relatives with a brilliant marriage to the “Most Desired Dude on the Planet,” as Esquire dubs Cecil. “I’ve always felt like I’m on probation,” she muses. “I’m only part of the family if I don’t embarrass them.” While her blue-blooded grandmother professes to love her, she also calls her a “china doll,” and plans to leave her tiara and her Magritte to Lucie’s “preternaturally poised” Boston Brahmin cousin, Cacky.
Lucie is content to wear Cecil’s ring “the size of a rhino’s testicle” until she unexpectedly encounters George at one of Beebe’s Master Level Puppy Yoga classes in the Hamptons, where he and his mother have rented a house. “She always knew she would run into George sooner or later, but she had always imagined it would be at an opportune moment—courtside at the Dorset Yacht Tennis Club matches, for instance, or at the Watermill Center’s Summer Benefit party—when she would be dressed to kill.” Suddenly, she’s running into him everywhere, and her carefully curated life begins to unravel. In a world of sex and vanity, she begins to sense the possibility of love.
There’s a halfhearted moral message about racism, family, and snobbery, but let’s face it: we aren’t here for Lucie’s identity crisis, and neither is Kwan. We’re here to laugh at the one percent while basking in their reflected glamour, at a time when we’re all desperately in need of some escapism. Sex and Vanity takes place in the Crazy Rich Asians megaverse—Astrid is at the wedding, and Kitty pops up late in the book—but takes a broader view of “the international ooh-la-las,” as Charlotte calls the ultra-rich. If you can’t eat ‘em, join ‘em.
(Doubleday, June 30, 2020)