Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Kevin Kwan - Sex and Vanity

On her very first morning on the jewel-like island of Capri, Lucie Churchill sets eyes on George Zao and she instantly can't stand him. She can't stand it when he gallantly offers to trade hotel rooms with her so that she can have a view of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she can't stand that he knows more about Casa Malaparte than she does, and she really can't stand it when he kisses her in the darkness of the ancient ruins of a Roman villa and they are caught by her snobbish, disapproving cousin Charlotte.
The daughter of an American-born Chinese mother and a blue-blooded New York father, Lucie has always sublimated the Asian side of herself in favor of the white side, and she adamantly denies having feelings for George. But several years later, when George unexpectedly appears in East Hampton, where Lucie is weekending with her new fiancé, Lucie finds herself drawn to George again. Soon, Lucie is spinning a web of deceit that involves her family, her fiancé, the co-op board of her Fifth Avenue apartment building, and, ultimately, herself as she tries mightily to deny George entry into her world--and her heart. Moving between summer playgrounds of privilege, peppered with decadent food and extravagant fashion, Sex and Vanity is a truly modern love story, a daring homage to A Room with a View, and a brilliantly funny comedy of manners set between two cultures.

Comment: I was given this book at Christmas and having finished the planned books for January, I decided to get to it right away.

When this story begins, the protagonists are in Capri for a wedding. The female protagonist, Lucie, cousin to the bride, is traveling without her mother and brother for the first time and another cousin is looking up for her. She feels happy to be in an exotic location but when she and cousin Charlotte meet the Zaos, Lucie can't help feeling stressed out, for the Chinese mother and son seem to embody a lot of Lucie herself wants to ignore of her own Asian ancestry. Nevertheless, her connection to George Zao is strong until things go awfully wrong. It's years since they meet again, they are older and more mature but are the feelings between them gone? How can Lucie think when everything is confusing again and she is about to be married to someone else?

In this book the author re-writes his modern version of Room With a View, featuring North American and Asian cultures as the opposing poles between love and duty. For those unfamiliar with the original, the basic story focuses on two people, from different social classes, falling in love despite their differences. The author, Asian himself, has chosen to write this version and on one hand we have Lucie, mostly looking White but having an Asian mother and ancestors which is overlooked by her all- American family on her father's side, and George, who is Asian and whose mother is considered inappropriate despite their considerable family wealth. According to some, family, influence and prestige are everything in detriment of new money and lack of class.

However, love doesn't always choose how different a bank account or how flashy a family member is, and Lucie and George find common ground, even when Lucie tries to ignore it. In the first part of the book, we have them in Capri, in an idyllic setting, falling in love but still trying to keep the appearance they are only friends. At times, not even this is easy for the pressure of other's opinion, mainly from Lucie's side, becomes rather obvious. I found this obstacle to be a bit too thin but it is interesting to think about, for often we can't see past the things we are used to and Lucie is young enough to not know for certain she can trust her feelings.

I saw some comments on this book being badly executed and I think I understand this point of view for the story is heavy with clichés and ostentation from some characters. This is a story about rich and influential people, whose family legacy and name counts for a lot within the right social circles and at times it feels this has no substance at all. There is a lot of conversation about brands, money and all it allows and how people surround themselves with those who are good to climb the social ladder. I suppose this means it's very hard to identify oneself with those characters and what they represent, as if anyone in those higher classes couldn't have the same experiences and emotions.

It's true sometimes this or that character got on my nerves but while I didn't think the author wanted to write a satire, he accomplished the task of highlighting the extreme of this class difference and there were moments I simply had to laugh at how silly and inconsequential the characters were. I especially liked Mordecai, a sort of social parasite who uses his family line to be up with the rich and titled, although he is penniless. His actions aren't always acceptable but he allowed me some laughs.

In the second part of the novel, after some years, Lucie and George meet again and we learn their feelings haven't really changed. This part of the novel wasn't as thrilling for me and Lucie's attitude felt too harsh sometimes. Still, as if this was a perfect comedy of errors, things get pretty desperate before they get solved. I understand how this is seen as insipid and not really well done by the author; he might have given more depth to the key characters or more maturity in the face of adversity in this second part but instead kept on with the exaggerations. It might depend on the reader's mood...

Personally, I had a good time reading and was able to ignore the problems, focusing on the fun and silly. I also found it quirky how the author included so many footnotes on some details, really revealing his propensity to share frivolous tidbits but which were cute too.
Grade: 8/10

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