REVIEW: Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

In brief: When Lucie meets George in Capri, she dislikes him intensely. Until she doesn’t. Years later, George reappears on the scene but Lucie is happily engaged, right?

The good: Lovely to indulge in some decadence and armchair travel.

The not-so-good: Cecil. I really want to smack him, but I don’t think that will help…

Why I chose it: Loved Kevin Kwan’s previous novels. Thanks to Penguin for the copy.

Year: 2020

Pages: 345

Publisher: Hutchinson (Penguin)

Setting: Capri, New York, the Hamptons…

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

If you’ve been missing the unabashed decadence that the Crazy Rich Asians series was, look no further than Sex and Vanity. The first in the new Cities Trilogy, this novel takes the reader to glamourous locations, expensive restaurants and extreme forms of decadence. It’s a little bittersweet reading about locations that you physically can’t visit during the current pandemic, but it’s a good place to start a wish list.

Readers of Kevin Kwan’s previous novels will know what to expect with Sex and Vanity – top notch locations from sandal makers to indoor gondolas, absolutely dripping with wealth. This time round, the focus is on Lucie Churchill, a Eurasian woman who is part of the famous New York Churchill family. Their wealth is about understatement. When Lucie meets George Zao and his mother Rosemary in Capri, she’s introduced to the brash, loud wealth of their family. Lucie actively dislikes George, until he comes to her rescue and she finds that his kisses are rather nice actually. After a fiasco at the wedding of her friend, the pair are separated. Lucie goes back to her life in New York and years later, she’s happily engaged to the king of new money, Cecil. Cecil is the worst ‘don’t you know who I am’ type of snob, with outlandish designs and ideas for further social climbing. But then George and his mother reappear in her life and Lucie must decide whether she should open her heart to George.

Fans of Kwan’s outlandish style will not be disappointed by Sex and Vanity. All the things that made Crazy Rich Asians so fun – the wealth, clothes, cars and drama are there. The story is described as a homage to A Room with a View, and fans of that book will be smiling wryly once Lucie and her cousin Charlotte open their hotel curtains in Capri. There are some fun updates, such as how Lucie and George’s secret tryst is discovered and immortalised. Those who loved the footnotes will be delighted to hear that they are back, explaining all the things that you aren’t quite cool enough to ‘get’. Put simply, Sex and Vanity is more of what made Crazy Rich Asians fun. If you expect that, you’re in for a rollicking ride. If you were expecting something entirely new and refreshing, you may be disappointed. And why change a good thing?

Lucie is a sweet heroine, but without a hard backbone that makes her stand out from the pack. She’s good – even a little too good – and it’s only towards the end that she stops pleasing everyone else before herself. The other characters range from raucous fun (Lucie’s mother, her brother Freddie and Mrs Zao) to downright unlikeable. Cecil and his mother Renee epitomise that with their new wealth and greed for even more. Cecil turns the dislike up to 10 with an odd bedroom scene with Lucie. The racism by the WASP characters is jaw dropping at times, but doesn’t really go too deep beyond their treatment of Lucie through snide remarks. George is somewhat of an enigma. He’s pleasant with hidden depths that are continually revealed through the novel – he surfs, he’s committed to minimising waste and he’s an excellent architect. He’s desirable, but it’s not really clear why.

Overall, this is a wonderfully light and gossip filled novel that continues the life of the rich and those around them (puppy yoga anyone?). Ground-breaking? Not really, but a chocolate cake is still good whether it’s your first one or thousandth.

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