Review: Sex And Vanity by Kevin Kwan

This adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View begins with an invitation. To Capri, no less, for the wedding of Taiwanese heiress Isabel Chiu to Italian heir Adolfo Michelangelo De Vecchi. Lucie Tang Churchill, 19-year-old New York biology student, flies in with her older cousin Charlotte who is her chaperon. Shenanigans ensue, initiated when Charlotte takes issue with the lack of ocean views in their hotel room, and the garish Rosemary Zao insists they swap with her and her broody and absolutely chiseled son George, a Hong Kong-via-Sydney architecture student with an Australian accent.

Superficially, there are two classes of people in this novel: the ultra-rich, and the unfathomably wealthy. Lucie belongs to the former, which in this world apparently makes her a pitiable pauper. The wedding is a week-long carnival, involving a tour of the most exclusive properties of Capri and a to-the-letter recreation of a setting in The Leopard for the ceremony. Back in New York, it’s all Hamptons and old apartment buildings on the Upper East Side or wherever it is that these people dwell. I don’t know, to be honest I stopped paying attention to the geography, the brands, the schools, the names of artists and socialites mentioned as pedigrees.

Its extravagances are as entertaining as they are exhausting, the romance is just steamy enough, even its completely insane plots and winks to audience (acerbic footnotes throughout from Kwan himself and many a nod to the novel’s no doubt soon-to-be-realised cinematic potential) are all of a piece. Some of the character work falls flat. Lucie is too callous to be the naïve heroine thrown to the wolves, and the plot hinges on the reader sharing her irritation with a character that is so instantly likeable she steals the show.

There’s some poignancy though in Lucie’s experiences of racism, both within and without. She’s been brought up among her father’s WASP-y family, who praise her backhandedly for her “exotic” looks. When she meets the alluring George she confesses devastatingly, “she had never really known another Asian guy before,” a legacy of her own internalised racism.

It works less well as a satire. These rich people may spout absurdities every time they open their mouths but they are cardboard clowns; they never become dangerous. I couldn’t help but long for the icy stare of Michelle Yeoh’s Elena in the movie adaptation of Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. Sex And Vanity is like an average Aperol spritz – it certainly fizzes, but I found it too sweet and lacking in the necessary bitterness.

Gay rating: 2/5 for mentions of the historical queer figures who used to party on Capri, most of whom seem to have come to tragic ends.

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