BOOK REC: Rich People Problems – Kevin Kwan

Author: Kevin Kwan (twitter / website)

UK Publisher: Corvus

Genre: Contemporary fiction, satire

See Also: Crazy Rich Asians | China Rich Girlfriend

Nicholas Young’s grandmother Su Yi is on her deathbed. While he rushes to be by her bedside, he’s not the only one. The entire Shang-Young clan has convened from all corners of the globe to stake claim on their matriarch’s massive fortune. With all parties vying to inherit a trophy estate in the heart of Singapore, Nicholas’s childhood home turns into a hotbed of sabotage and scandal.

Taking us from the elegantly appointed mansions of Manila to the secluded private islands in the Sulu Sea, Kevin Kwan’s final installment in this irresistible trilogy reveals the long-buried secrets of Asia’s most privileged families and their rich people problems.

I really loved the first two books in this series, so I was looking forward to this one as being grander and more epic than the previous two. It was, in a way, but in others it was more constrained as it wove a more complex plot against the backdrop of staggering wealth and incomprehensible privilege.

One of the central points of the previous books is that Nick was considered the prince of the Young family, and set to inherit a fortune that no-one actually knows the details of but which everyone is certain is gargantuan. This was all put in jeopardy when he married Rachel, despite Rachel turning out to be the long-lost illegitimate daughter of a billionaire from mainland China, and thus set to inherit staggering wealth in her own right. Nick doesn’t care that he has been excommunicated – he was happy with the money he had, and wasn’t aspiring to more, unlike his scheming cousins. His only regret was the loss of the close relationship he once had with his grandmother. So when they learn Su-Yi is dying, Rachel encourages Nick to return home to reconcile. Unfortunately the rest of his family assume that he is there for financial reasons rather than emotional, and block his access to her.

The second main strand of plot follows Astrid and her fraught relationship with Charlie Wu. Her divorce has not gone smoothly, and neither has his. They’re trying to keep things on the downlow, while also wanting to move forward and live their lives together. Someone keeps leaking pictures and videos of them to the press, which her super-private family are apoplectic about, and she has no idea whether her grandmother will approve.

Threaded in between this are glimpses back in history of Su-Yi’s past. Of her travels around the world, how she earned that lifelong Gurkha honour guard, and what she did during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. This strand caught me by surprise – it felt very different tonally to previous books, and added some interesting depth to a character who has until now largely been wielded like a panto villain.

Cousin Eddie makes a comeback as a more major character in this book too, desperate to try and replace Nick as the heir to the Young fortune, and leaning into his worse character traits to capitalise on the situation. It’s a fascinating bit of character exploration, because he is the absolute worst human being and you can sense the disdain from everyone around him, even when he is entirely oblivious.

I didn’t necessarily love this book as much as the first two, and I wonder if some of the issue with that is because I left it so long between reading. I imagine if you binge the lot in one go, I wouldn’t have felt this one was a little different from the others. It feels like, broadly, the satire has been pulled back in this instalment, and where the world was broadened from book one to book two, it feels like the lens has narrowed again to follow these strands more closely. This makes sense! The whole story has, really, been a family saga for the Youngs, so at the denoument of that saga it’s sensible to pull the story in close and really focus on them. If I’d rolled straight in from China Rich Girlfriend, then I think the momentum would have carried me through when we lost some of the high stakes, high rolling, high society nonsense.

As a trilogy, however, the books work really well. I love As a trilogy, however, the books work really well. I love the world and dynasty Kwan has built – while the fact that it remains a satire based on real life can’t be ignored, the staggering distance between most peoples’ lives and the lives of the characters in the novels mean that it might as well be fantasy. I really enjoy the bite to his caricatures and, if I’m being truly honest, the outlandishly aspirational wealth porn. It makes them the perfect holiday reading, and made the films so lush and and visually impressive. I’ll be interested to see how Kwan’s next novel – it’s a stand-alone, set primarily in the USA – differs from them. As for these three, however, I am definitely going to come back and re-read this over and over again. They’re perfect relaxation fodder.

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