Review: Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

Lately I am capable of 3 things:

  1. Staring into nothing with no energy to do anything
  2. Ordering delivery because I can’t seem to make myself cook
  3. Reading romance novels. 

The last few weeks have been hard. I’ve fallen into a bit of a Pandepression. All of the Covid news, the state of America, and the friends and family that have now decided that masks, social distancing and behaving safely are optional have put me in a funk. 

Escapism is harder to come by 4 months in. Fantasy sometimes does the trick. I’m still working slowly through Ferrente’s wonderful Neopalitan novels, but worry what will happen to my state of mind when I finish. 

In their place I have picked up every romance novel that sounds remotely interesting. 

I’m just lucky that Kevin Kwan, of Crazy Rich Asians fame came out with a new book this month. It was right on time for me. 

Sex and Vanity is a modern and decedent retelling of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View. Instead of an Edwardian vacation in Florence, Kwan finds his versions Lucie, Charlotte, and George in Carpi for the wedding of the decade. Propriety, desire, and insecurity drives the story as we weave through 8 years of Lucie’s life. 

Kwan does an excellent job updating source material that can feel out of touch to modern readers. With that said, A Room with a View is a harder sell in modern times. Sex and Vanity follows the same line, all the major plot points are still there, but where as Lucy originally feels like a more modern woman in the Forster text Kwan’s Lucie feels repressed, aimless, and generally unlikeable. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m here for unlikeable characters, except Sex and Vanity is full of them. Charlotte, while intolerable in View, is a new level of awful in Capri. Cecil is comically awful. It is hard to see how George, the one character to make a positive impression in most, if not all of his scenes wants to be associated with any of these people. 

Kwan succeeds in giving readers decadent societies and socialites with elaborate backstories. Sex and Vanity is its best when it strays from Forster’s influence. The wedding on Capri, Puppy Yoga, and an over the top proposal give the story life. Even Lucie’s experienced as a mixed Chinese American gives new breath to this overly stuffy story. 

After all Kwan is at his best when showcasing microaggressions in society amongst the glitz and glamor. Lucie could have done with some more introspection, and a story that wasn’t surrounded by family expectation and romance. 

Or…readers really just deserved a story about Freddie and George having the summer of their lives in the Hamptons. 

Regardless, Sex and Vanity is a fun story with deliciously detestable and fun characters. It scratches that travel itch I think most of us are starting to experience as travel still feels a bit unsafe, and lets you live like one of the 1% for a few hundred pages. 

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