Kevin Kwan’s Sex and Vanity is the pandemic read you didn’t know you needed

Published July 27, 2020, 9:22 PM

by Krizette Laureta-Chu

The bestselling author’s new book is even more lavish

It’s accurate—and without a trace of judgment or irony—to say that Kevin Kwan’s latest novel, Sex and Vanity, is both a purely enjoyable and grossly out of touch read in the context of these times—that is, during a pandemic.

Set in the glittering, glamorous island of Capri, and in the exclusive pre-war buildings of WASP-y New York, and in the men’s only clubs and stiff upper lip/casual elegance (there is such a thing) of the Hamptons, Sex and Vanity is, just like Kwan’s runway bestsellers, the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, a paean to the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, dripping with breathless references to thrill the wide-eyed ingénues thirsting for the trappings of wealth and fame. 

Billennials (billionaire Millenials) and mocialites (male socialites—what has our world come to?) are front and center in this delicious but vacuous (deliciously vacuous) novel about Hafa (mixed ethnicity, in her case Chinese-American) girl Lucie, whose ancestors were on the Mayflower and are considered old money, meeting a Chinese boy named George, on the island of Capri for one of those over-the-top weddings that stretch on for days. 

Lucie tries her best to avoid him, but is inextricably drawn to his muscles and his righteous nerdiness (a killer combo, if you ask me). One sexual encounter later—and they’ve been pulled apart because of social mores and a host of other unrelatable concerns of the ultra wealthy. Five years into the future, they meet again, only this time Lucie is betrothed to a “mocialite” aptly and pretentiously named Cecil, a painfully nouveau and insecure man-child who needs an occasional good slapping across his face, delivering lines that are some of the most cringe-inducing.

Though Kwan tries to inject meaningful themes—racism and internal racism as dominant subjects—these barely skim the surface and, if you’re looking for profundity and depth, there’s none to be had. Not necessarily a bad thing. 

It is a pity, however, that the characters aren’t as well fleshed out, as likable, and as relatable as the ones from Crazy Rich Asians, and none of the major characters is lovable.  Cecil is a caricature of a character—son of a Texan billionaire, with a mother who rose on the social ladder without finding her footing, and Lucie is a superficial girl who is extremely annoying in her flightiness, and George, the only one who stirs some interest, is unpredictable—cold one moment, and extremely passionate the next, in a disjointed arc that’s quite a struggle to follow.  

But the redeeming value of Sex and Vanity is that, despite these basic shortcomings, it’s the kind of lazy, delish read one would appreciate during these tedious times when Capri or New York seem as alien and as unreachable as Mars or Jupiter. 

And we’re talking out-of-the-world wealth: The characters, from the minor to the main, are even more crazy rich than the crazy rich Asians. Think wealth so preposterous they’re almost unbelievable, riches and opulence beyond what real life have so far given us previews of. The Kardashian Jenners are paupers compared to the international jet set who make up this book. Nick Young’s family will be the poor relations to Cecil. It was so madcap and dangerously seductive that, by the end of the book, I wanted a humungous villa in Capri, a boyfriend who would offer me an Aston Martin as his reconciliation gift, and a membership to a yoga class where expensive puppies licked the sweat off my elbows. And oh, my own tiara—which is apparently de rigueur if you want to attend a dinner party in some countess’ palace in Europe. 

Power, sex (well not so much of it), money, and fame—these here are the ingredients that make this book a template for a true escapist romp. As one who grew up in this kind of voyeuristic literature—as a child, I suckled on the literary teat of Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele, Tom Wolfe, Sidney Sheldon, and Harold Robbins—novelists who chronicled the Masters of the Universe in their avid pursuit of materialistic excess, I admit to still being awed by the staggering wealth described in Kwan’s book—which makes it the kind of escapist fare oh-so-necessary to consume as we face the humdrum of our everyday quarantined life. 

Should you pick up this book? Definitely, just for its sheer sumptuousness. Just like your Rick Owens’ thigh-high platform boots. They’re fun, they’re frivolous, and although they’ll never be classics, you’re at a point in your life when you badly need them just to switch things up a little bit.  

Sex and Vanity is available at National Book Store.