Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2013)

Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians is a beach read with the soul of a Korean drama.

Its premise even sounds like a novelization of Boys over Flowers: Hardworking Rachel, a second-generation American of Chinese descent, visits her boyfriend’s family in Singapore only to discover that they’re insanely wealthy and powerful. In fact, the Young family is so loaded they even put Goo Joon Pyo to shame—after seeing their family compound, a stunned character theorizes that they must be “richer than god.”

Once upon a time, sex-and-shopping novels from authors like Danielle Steele and Judiths Krantz and McNaught were all the rage. Crazy Rich Asians is definitely a throwback to this era, but with a modern twist: it’s a shopping novel. There’s hardly any sex—the only lust to be found in its pages is inspired by bespoke suits, real estate, and thirty-carat jewels. Which, in its own way, is also reminiscent of Kdrama.

The novel’s opening scene says it all: A group of these crazy rich Asians arrive at a posh British hotel only to be treated with racist disdain by the manager. Within the space of a paragraph, the hotel’s owner arrives with the news that he’s just made a mint by selling the place to a nice family from Singapore. As you might expect, the crazy rich get their room and the manager gets his walking papers.

Like BoF, this book features impromptu trips to private islands, couture shopping sprees, and family-owned jets; it’s luxury porn at its most achingly luxurious. But unlike BoF, the young lovers of the synopsis aren’t really the stars of the show. In some ways I regret this—I would love to read a thoughtful, first-person version of this story, with Rachel’s regular-girl experience of wealth in the forefront. Can you imagine how great the bedsheets must be at chez Young? Or how weird it must be to have live-in servants? This tactile, small-scale angle isn’t really explored in the novel.

What is explored has its own appeal, though. Complete with a two-page, heavily (and humorously) footnoted family tree, Crazy Rich Asians creates a big, complicated web of kinship ties and political alliances, telling its story from many perspectives. Its third-person narration follows a number of characters: There’s Eleanor Sung, a meddling mother whose attempts to break up her son’s relationship are right out of a Kdrama; Astrid Leong, an it-girl fashion plate who’s the envy of Singapore’s jet set; and Eddison Cheng, a status-obsessed social climber who puts the “spoiled” in the phrase “spoiled brat.”

Rachel herself is the focus of one plotline, which follows her trip from New York City to Singapore to attend the wedding of her boyfriend’s childhood best friend. Even though she’s dated Nick for years, she never learned much about his family, or even considered why this might be. (For a professor of economics, she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.) Rachel shows some spunk late in the book, but she generally functions as an excuse for the author’s lengthy Socratic-dialogue-esuqe observations about life in Singapore. Here’s a scene that’s sure to strike home with most Western fans of Asian drama:
“These women really brought out the big guns tonight, didn’t they?” Rachel whispered to Nick as she eyed a woman sporting a cape of metallic-gold feathers. 
“Sure looks like it! Was that Queen Nefertiti who just walked by?” Nick joked. 
“Shut your mouth, Nicholas—that’s Patsy Wang. She’s a Hong Kong socialite renowned for her avant-garde style. There are dozens of blogs out there devoted to her,” Oliver commented. 
“Who’s the guy with her? The one in the diamond studded jacket who looks like he’s wearing eye shadow?” Rachel queried. 
“That’s her husband, Adam, and he is wearing eye shadow,” Oliver answered. 
“They’re married? Really?” Rachel raised a doubting eyebrow. 
“Yes, and they even have three children to prove it. You have to understand, many Hong Kong men revel in being fashionistas—they are dandies in the truest sense of the word. How flamboyantly dressed they might be is no indication of which team they play on.”
In fact, drama watchers will be familiar with many aspects of this dishy glimpse into the lives of Asia’s upper crust. There are birth secrets and love triangles. Its families are all elder-centric, and everyone studies abroad (in contrast to Kdrama, its Singaporean characters prefer English schools to American ones). Hardly a scene goes by without mouth-watering descriptions of food, and Asian dramas—including Korean ones—appear on every television screen. Both Rain and Tony Leong are name-dropped as attendees at the big wedding.

Most of the laughs in this book arise from the behavior of the flashy new rich and their over-the-top spending: the wedding features a performance by Cirque du Soleil and “I Will Always Love You” is sung in Mandarin by “the Barbra Streisand of Asia.” But underneath it all, Kwan seems to share his characters’ awe of the old-guard money.

Crazy Rich Asians may be most reminiscent of Boys over Flowers, but it also brings to mind another beloved pop phenomenon: Twilight. Kwan’s über-rich oligarchs exist in a secret world populated by people who just aren’t like you and me. Immortality might have been replaced by excellent plastic surgery, but this is still a story that shows us life as we could never hope to live it.

I regret its workmanlike (and sometimes clumsy) prose, but Crazy Rich Asians is a breezy drama...that just happens to be a book. B+

Central Casting
A sad statement about my level of obsession with Korean drama is that as I read, I found myself mentally casting Korean actors for each role. Sigh.

Rachel Chu—Eugune. No-nonsense Rachel grew up in America, moving from city to city with her single mother before the two finally settled in California. As the story begins, she’s a college professor based in New York.

Nick Young—Jo In Sung. Oxford-educated Nick may be the favorite grandson of one of Asia’s richest families, but he’s chosen to live in America and work as a history professor instead of joining a family business. When he returns to Singapore with his girlfriend, he realizes his two worlds might not meet as easily as he expected.

Colin Khoo—Daniel Henney. Nick’s childhood best friend is exotically handsome and prone to moody introspection. As Asia’s richest, most eligible young bachelor, his wedding is front-page news around the world.

Araminta Lee—Lee Hyori. Colin’s family actually approves of his future wife. A former model from one of Singapore’s best families, Araminta is everything they want in a daughter-in-law. All Colin cares about is that he loves her.

Astrid Leong—Park Si Yeon. Every Singaporean girl wants to be Astrid: she’s beautiful beyond belief and married to the perfect man. Or so they think...

Oliver T’sein. Brutally honest and full of snarky charm, Oliver is Rachel’s most trustworthy guide to the crazy (and crazy rich) Young family. 


  1. I would watch this. Family drama anyone? With this cast? Drama overlords, please take note xD

    Maybe I should read this - I can't seem to figure out how to read an actual book these days. What? I have to hold something in my hands?? (Because I refuse to books any other way) Perhaps this might aid me.. to marry my current taste for drama-ish things with my former love of all things made from dead trees.. I will check it out soon.

  2. This could be your gateway back into the world of books. It's fast and fun, and it actually inspired me to wake up early several days so I could read before work. And that never happens, even when I really love something.

    It might not be the most politically correct thing to cast a bunch of Koreans instead of Chinese actors, as almost everyone in the book has roots in China. But I don't know any Chinese actors. And if a Brit could play Scarlett O'hara, why shouldn't a Korean play Astrid Leong? ;)

  3. You know, when I first saw mention of this book on your tumblr, I went "this looks like a kdrama in book form"...and immediately went to look for it on my public library. It's a strange feeling, this collision of my current affair with asian dramas and my long time love for books.

    So on a scale one 1 to 10, how makjang is this? And how dim is the female lead?

    (Oh, and I finally started my book blog! It's pretty bare right now though.)

    1. It's probably a three on the makjang-o-meter. The makjangy elements are all handled pretty reasonably, which makes them easy to take. (And nobody throws water in anybody else's face in the whole course of the book.)

      The female lead isn't dim—she's just a nonentity wandering around being agreeable. The same can be said of the male lead. It's his wacky family that makes the book worth reading. I'm actually hoping for a sequel, if that tells you anything.

      Congrats on starting your blog...and welcome to to the wacky world of online authorship. ;) I look forward to reading more of your work!

  4. I really want to read it,I read the First Chapter Online and I'm HOOKED! It's sold Out almost everywhere and my Mom who doesn't even Like Kpop or kdramas, LOVED IT! she told me,'we need to buy this BOOK!" It's great.. I can't wait to get my hands on it! haha! great Blog post and I HOPE They make a kDrama out of this!
    xoxo Pam

    1. where did u get the online book?

  5. The book sounds like a must read. Loved the actors you chose to play the parts. Would make a fantastic drama!

  6. Just checked . . . there are like 3 gabillion holds for it at my library, and no e-book in sight. It also sounds like a romana clef--where the author uses people and events from real life and disguises them just enough (like that book Primary Colors, to choose a dated example). The Eddison Cheng character=Edison Chen irl, repurposed?

    Thanks for writing about this--I may not ever get to it, but now it's on a wish list. And since I work with words I'm reluctant to buy books. I just "donate" to the library (i.e., pay overdues). C'mon liberry, gimme the e-book! I'll quadruple my overdue fee.

  7. read this book too...would love to see it as a kdrama...perfect casting :-)

  8. I accidentally found this book in the bookstore yesterday. And i bought it without thinking twice because i remember your review here :p I hope Heirs (the next kdrama featuring Lee Min Ho & Park Shin Hye) will show the attractive plot story, more or less just like this book :D

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