Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians is a tale of extravagant wealth, designer dresses, catty relatives, wonderful food and a lavish wedding.
The obligatory couple at the centre of all this is Rachel Chu and Nick Young of New York. Unbeknownst to economics professor Rachel, Nick is the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Asia – so when he invites her home for the holidays to attend a society wedding in Singapore, it’s something of a shock for her. For their part, Nick’s family isn’t terribly impressed that he’s determined to marry a nobody.
What follows is a not-exactly-revolutionary romantic comedy, as Rachel navigates the convoluted rituals and customs of the society she’s inadvertently stumbled into, facing the contempt of Nick’s family, the jealousy of the women who want him for themselves, and the impossible standards she must now live up to. Will their relationship survive this turmoil?
I enjoyed it primarily as escapism, a glimpse into the kind of lifestyle that is for the overwhelming majority of people utterly out of reach; a chance to live that life vicariously, through fiction. In other words, I experienced it as a comfort read, consolatory and conservative: it never criticises the extraordinary privilege of its characters, or the systems which produce such privilege, and as such, it shores up that privilege, encourages us to admire and aspire to it, protecting the hidden injustices on which it rests.
This conservatism overwhelms the gestures the novel does make towards a more nuanced engagement with its subject. It’s most problematic when it comes to the novel’s ableist title, which signals that we’re meant to read the characters’ wealth as ridiculous while simultaneously propping up a value system that (indirectly) enables their privilege in the first place. And while I appreciated Kwan’s recognition of how deliberately exclusive the rituals of the wealthy are, how calculatedly obfuscatory they are to outsiders, how difficult, in other words, it really is to be Cinderella, the fact remains that this is a world that Rachel inevitably eventually chooses to enter, and so one that’s validated as desirable. It’s the ultimate fantasy: as a woman, you just have to be nice enough, persevere long enough, be romantically interesting enough, to overcome those barriers.
There are good things, of course; most obviously, the fact that this, a novel aimed squarely at a mass-market Western audience, is populated entirely by Asian characters. It’s also, despite/because of its conservatism, a lot of fun to read – the narrative beats come exactly in all the right places, a familiar, comfortable, cosy rhythm. I think it’s okay to enjoy things like that, as long as we can acknowledge their flaws too, and call for better. For now, though – there are two sequels to get stuck into…