Back to that Material World

Reading about a life you don’t lead can be pure pleasure. That’s the main reason Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series is so intoxicating. When you don’t own a private jet with a movie theater, botanical garden, koi pond, and a karaoke lounge, you get a certain thrill pretending you could do so in another life. When you live in a 400-sq.-ft. apartment without dozens of reflecting pools, you’d gladly be swept away to where and how the other half (OK maybe the 0.5%) lives.

This escape and the hilarity that accompanies it are why we fell for the the first in this trilogy. The sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, amps up the drama to match the extravagance of the characters’ lives, yet the spectacle is a bit far-fetched. Is it possible for so many ridiculous moments to occur in lives that are almost unbelievably luxurious? To be fair, I mostly enjoyed Kwan’s second novel, but I’m choosing to be a tough critic here, and in comparison to Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend felt too unrealistic to really light me up.

China Rich Girlfriend

“‘I don’t understand. How can a credit card ever be rejected? It’s not like it’s a kidney!'” — Colette from China Rich Girlfriend

Our subject novel fast forwards a few years and follows the same many characters as its predecessor but from perspectives that were overshadowed in book one. For example, remember Kitty Pong? I mean how could you not. We get to see this over-the-top, ahem, gold digger as a distant wife and mother trying to make a splash in Hong Kong society. Let me tell you, it’s not easy. And while she’s still cray, she might not be as as cray as we originally thought thanks to her POV.

Don’t worry though: Rachel and Nick are still at the forefront of the story. At the end of Crazy Rich Asians, we learn about Rachel’s familial history. (To recap, her mother got with Rachel’s father while in an abusive marriage; however, the only way to get to safety was to hide the truth from Rachel’s father and escape China.) Well, in China Rich Girlfriend, Rachel gets to meet the past that she never knew just in time for her nuptials.

From there, the newlyweds are swept off to Shanghai where they learn whole new levels of indulgence and societal expectations. We get even more reflecting pools, private jets, and absurd shopping sprees — oh yeah, and a free trip to Paris — as Rachel becomes acquainted with Carlton, a fast-driving charmer who is sitting on a pretty inheritance, and his “girlfriend,” Colette, the Mainland’s “It” girl and daughter of China’s fourth richest man (or third depending which magazine you pick up). This whirlwind comes crashing down as Rachel forgets to keep her friends close and her enemies closer.

“The larger the diamonds, the older the wife, the more the mistresses.” — China Rich Girlfriend

For some reason, the bank accounts — and by extension, the spending habits — of these characters never seem fake or impossible to obtain. Maybe that’s because of the footnotes Kwan provides (a nice attribute carried over from book one) that provide explanation and anecdotes, authorizing him as our storyteller. I truly believe that people actually do live this way in some parts of the world. So why then does China Rich Girlfriend not seem on par with Crazy Rich Asians?

Drama.

It’s all a little inconceivable. This second book gives us a near-death experience, actual tragedy — which honestly doesn’t seem to affect people too much — some plastic surgery gone bad, and more. Adding all of these elements seems a little forced, when this book never needed that anyways.

Kwan is a very talented writer. He can expertly turn a phrase and accurately depict characters in every single scene, not to mention he’s a certifiable visual artist. I see clearly everything he describes; there’s never any vagueness to his writing, and the details are always there. He also makes me laugh out loud. So. Much. Laughter (and jaw dropping, a ton of that too). These are the reasons I enjoyed reading China Rich Girlfriend, but they are also the reasons why the book did not necessitate some extreme plot points.

“‘I know the average outfit in your wardrobe costs more than a semester of tuition at Princeton, but it makes you look like a community college during summertime: NO CLASS.'” — society consultant Corinna Ko-Tung from China Rich Girlfriend

I never need a book to be 100% real. (You know about my Harry Potter obsession.) But the excess drama in China Rich Girlfriend, which is exponentially greater than in book one, feels a little cheap — not too far off from some of the mothers Kwan writes about. It’s like when you dress up for a fancy occasion and pair a stunning gown with gaudy jewelry. Give me the goods and leave the excess at home. At his core, Kwan has the goods — visual storytelling, witty language, and interesting characters. Let those qualities speak for themselves, Kevin Kwan. No need to dress it up.

PSA: Nothing could deter me from reading the final novel in this series, Rich People Problems, so stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Back to that Material World

  1. Pingback: Toe to Toe: Crazy Rich Asians | Big Little Literature

  2. Pingback: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop | Big Little Literature

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