This week was not exactly a stellar start to the summer, now was it? Between the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and yesterday’s London attacks, the world isn’t looking so sunny. I’m currently bed-ridden with a bout of a lovely strep throat/cold combo, and although usually I enjoy any excuse to read all day in bed, it’s been more difficult to concentrate on any book of depth while nursing a fever, aching limbs, and grieving and angry for a city I was lucky enough to call (for a short time) my home. Why does this keep happening? What can we do to put a stop to this violence? I’m way too hazy from my cough medicine to answer these questions with any semblance of wisdom, though no one else seems to be able to answer these questions either. The scariest part to me is how each attack becomes less and less shocking – we are becoming desensitized and grow jaded with the well-meaning Facebook flag pictures and the “Praying for London” tweets. I think I’m undergoing a short term version of a funk.
“Rich People Problem” books are my go-to for whenever I’m having a rough week, when I just finished a rough semester in school, or whenever I need a palate-cleanser after reading an intense or depressing story. So this weekend I needed something light and frothy, perhaps even downright superficial, to give me a temporary reprieve from the real world. Fortunately, the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (published in 2013) fit at least two of these three characteristics, and took me to a completely different part of the world without having to leave my couch.
What’s it All About?
The international bestselling novel is the first in a trilogy (the sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, was published in 2015, and the finale Rich People Problems was just released this past month) and centers around 29-year-old Economy professor and ABC (American Born Chinese) Rachel Chu and her dashingly charming boyfriend, Nick Young. Nick is heading back to his home country of Singapore for his best friend’s upcoming nuptials, and he invites Rachel along as part of a summer-long tour of Asia. What Rachel doesn’t know is that her low-key PhD lover is actually a favorite grandson of one of the richest Singapore families…in other words, she’s about to be immersed in the world of some Crazy Rich Asians.
As she is interrogated and judged by various friends and family of the Singapore elite, Rachel begins to question her relationship with Nick and her place in his life. Will they survive the pressure?
At first, I honestly thought I was going to loathe this book. The opening chapters that are narrated by Nick’s more sartorial-focused family members include an endless number of designer brand name-dropping and Michelin-star restaurant references that made me cringe and roll my eyes. There’s a reason why I’ve never been tempted to watch the Kardashian’s or Real Housewives shows; even for me there are limits to how basic I’m willing to go (though I’ll never say no to a SoulCycle class or a glass of bubbly, so I’m still pretty far gone on the Yuppy spectrum).
…eventually though, I realized that the whole point of the book was to gently satirize this culture (although the author himself seems to genuinely love a good Gucci loafer, as much as he talks about them in the book). I blame the cough-medicine-induced haze on my delayed reading comprehension. Then I started really enjoying myself and got immersed in the world of Asian elite society, the clash between Mainland Chinese and Overseas Chinese, as well as the New Money versus Old Money tensions that are scarily similar to American society except on a grander scale – in Kwan’s depiction of Singapore, those that make a mere four million a year are absolute paupers.
I also surprisingly found myself gleaning little tiny peeks into Singapore and Chinese culture – the rituals and traditions, the mouth-watering cuisine that sounds like a mix of Indian, Asian, and European cuisine (I have been craving satay and coconut rice and laksa and chili crab for several days now, as well as many other dishes that I don’t even fully understand). Also, did you know that Singapore actually gives dividends to its citizens when the economy is doing well? This island, and really this area of the world, holds so many secrets I was completely unaware of until this book. Unsurprisingly, I am now desperate to plan a trip to this part of the world.
Read this book if…
At its heart, this novel is a rom-com, albeit one sprinkled with designer dress names and private-jet trips to Indonesia and Australia. I do think Mr. Kwan brings a perceptive eye to this genre, so if you’re looking for a fun summer read with hints of character development and sly humor, while understanding that this book is definitely NOT going to change your life, this is a good pick. It will definitely make you smile on those rough days, if also feel a bit gross about how materialistic we all are.
(P.S. For those of you in the London area, you can offer to help victims in the London attacks via the Facebook Safety Check app, which has volunteer resources. If anyone knows how those of us in the United States or other countries can help, please comment below.)