Book Review: Sex and Vanity

Overall Rating: 3/5

Okay, I have to admit my bias here before we get into this review. I adored Crazy Rich Asians. Maybe it’s because I spent my teen years in South-East Asia, privy to (but not a part of) the lives of the “hi-so” elites on top of the fact that I have not been back in several years, but Kwan’s writing hit me with a wave of nostalgia and excitement that I was looking forward to experiencing again with Sex and Vanity. You know when you want a book to take you somewhere specific? I was ready to feel at home.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way – Kwan simply has a knack for writing in a way that brings everything to life. The casual conversational tone and brilliant imagery set Sex and Vanity up to be a book that you can see and hear clearly in your mind. He also knows how to write about class and wealth. Similarly to Crazy Rich Asians, he expertly assesses the complex dynamics between diaspora and and natives (while not equivalent, one could argue that this conflict was actually between new and old money) but he takes it a step further in Sex and Vanity by layering in more explicit conversations around race. As an immigrant, I related strongly to the concept of internalized racism and enjoyed Kwan’s approach to addressing serious topics while maintaining a light tone. When you look past the glitz and glamor in Sex and Vanity – and believe me, there is plenty – you can appreciate what a nuanced take on wealth (or perhaps, the exhibition of wealth) on societal perceptions, status, and reputation.

What I was considerably less impressed by was the overall plot of the novel. I could practically predict the way events were going to play out after the first chapter – and that was a little disappointing. I actually took a lot longer to read this than I anticipated and I think a lot of that boils down to how cliché some of the plot lines were, especially the various romances. I simply did not feel the need to rush through the book because I knew how it would end, and I was not wrong. The question then becomes – how would I have felt about this book if it were not for my cultural ~connection~? I am not sure. It is a light and easy read, so I would possibly keep a book like this for a long flight (I actually read Crazy Rich Asians on a plane), but that might be the extent of it for me.

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