BOOK REC: China Rich Girlfriend – Kevin Kwan

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Author: Kevin Kwan (twitter / website)

UK Publisher: Corvus

Genre: Contemporary fiction, satire

See Also: Crazy Rich Asians

It’s the eve of Rachel Chu’s wedding, and she should be over the moon. She has a flawless oval-cut diamond, a wedding dress she loves, and a fiancé willing to give up one of the biggest fortunes in Asia in order to marry her. Still, Rachel mourns the fact that her birth father, a man she never knew, won’t be there to walk her down the aisle.

Then a chance accident reveals his identity. Suddenly, Rachel is drawn into a dizzying world of Shanghai splendor, a world where people attend church in a penthouse, where exotic cars race down the boulevard, and where people aren’t just crazy rich… they’re China rich.

Crazy Rich Asians was one of the books I reviewed in the first year of this blog and I adored it. After being swept away by the film, I was tickled and surprised by how much more biting the book was. The characters who had seemed over the top in the films it appeared had been watered down and sanitised for the cinema audience – the books stretched their shallowness, vanity and cruelty to almost pantomime levels, set among a backdrop of even more outlandishly lavish spending. There was a fantastic nod to the long-lasting impact of colonialism, and a scathing look at the class system which valued British “old money” above Chinese mainland “new money”.

This book immediately felt like it was coming into the scene with less of a “burn it all down” mentality. Part of this, I think was because Nick and Rachel get married very early on in the book, and thus the central conflict between them and Eleanor is rendered broadly irrelevent. I think it’s also because the first book placed itself very firmly in the centre of the Young family home turf, and kept everyone there, across a fairly short period of time, to heighten emotions and stressors. China Rich Girlfriend instead takes place across a number of months, and includes visits to Singapore, Hong Kong, LA, Paris and Shanghai. The backdrops are just as dazzling, if not more so, than in the first instalment, but Rachel – as the voice of the “everywoman” in the book – seems to have become somewhat inured to it. She isn’t swept up in it, still maintaining her own tastes and spending habits, but rarely is she completely surprised by it. Things are taken in stride.

The focus of the narrative is split between Rachel attempting to get to know her long-lost paternal family, Astrid dealing with her changed marriage with Michael and the way her best friend Charlie is distancing himself from her, and Kitty Pong, the “actress”, who is trying to establish herself as a proper member of Hong Kong high society now she has married Bernard Tai, after her ignominious beginnings. By and large, the wider Young and Leong families are glossed over in the narrative, except where they appear as narrative catalysts.

What follows is an interesting mix of Old Money vs New Money narratives. Kitty’s attempt to redeem herself in the eyes of high society under the guidance of a social ‘fixer’ continues a lot of the satire from book one, in that we see the cliques, the value of appearances and social niceties, and connections. Unlike Crazy Rich Asians, Kitty is paced through the rules carefully, where Rachel was thrown in the deep end. This allows some time to really examine the ridiculousness of it, and the impossibility of breaking through when you’re deemed an outsider. There are so many trip hazards hidden beneath the surface.

Unlike the film, Astrid and Michael have attempted to rescue their marriage following the events of book one. Michael’s company has taken off spectacularly, and he no longer feels like he is powerless in the relationship. Unfortunately, this has come with attitudes that aren’t entirely an improvement, and his desire to flaunt his new power and position goes against all the old money reservation that characterises Astrid’s family background.

Finally, Rachel and Nick are thrown into a whirlwind adventure with Rachel’s paternal family, who have turned out to be old money Chinese billionaires. Settled and comfortable in their relationship, Nick and Rachel largely felt like observers on a strange and elaborate journey through the best of the best in Shanghai. Where in Singapore and book one, money was rarely talked about openly even if it was used to rank the importance of the people in society (and the more money you had, the less you talked about it), with the families we see in Shanghai, open discussion of finances and clear tallies of a person’s monetary value dictates relationships and behaviours. It was an interesting contrast.

I really enjoyed this book. Now used to Kwan’s narrative style, which caught me a little by surprise at the start of Crazy Rich Asians, I settled into it very quickly, and found this book very easy to devour quickly. It felt lighter-handed than book one, almost as though Kwan wasn’t so closely familiar with real people who he had based most of these characters on. There are unexpected plot twists, high-money set pieces, and a lot of great character moments, but there’s something less bloodthirsty about the satire in this. I don’t know if some of this is because it’s the second book of three, and is just priming the reader for more in the final instalment, or if this is just a mellowing because we have been thrown into the world with Rachel in book one, and now are growing more used to its harshness even as we enjoy its ridiculousness.

These books are such relaxing, easy reads, however, that I could spend days luxuriating in them. I was very tempted to roll straight into buying book three, but talked myself down as my to be read list is once again ridiculous. I’ll clear the backlog a little, then treat myself.

Briefly:

  • Continues the satire of book one, but it feels less biting. Possibly this is because it takes place over a longer period, and possibly this is because it follows three different plotlines around the world, making it seem less immediate, overwhelming and intense. There’s more fondness in this one.
  • I was particularly taken with a scene where someone who has no idea how wealthy Nick is tries to explain how the extremely expensive watch he owns is the passport into VIP treatment everywhere because it marks him out as a billionaire. Nick – wearing the vintage watch he inherited from his grandfather – listens as the man recites everything the watch can do, and then politely enquires how to tell the time on it. It’s an old joke, but it’s perfectly placed, well executed, and it really tickled me.
  • I’ll be interested to see how the film differs from this – in particular the first instalment drastically changed Eleanor’s character, and things were resolved differently for both Rachel and Astrid. But I do know that the whole thing will be gloriously lavish again, and I can’t wait.

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