If it wasn’t for the fact that a movie adaptations is coming out this August, I wouldn’t have gotten around to finally opening Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, a book I actually already purchased four years earlier.
Anna Wintour herself published an excerpt of the book in an issue of American Vogue and callled it a “mordantly funny satirical novel.” Indeed, Crazy Rich Asians is ticklish satire, but the book is more comic relief than gripping storytelling.
The movie trailer appears to streamline the book into a tale from the eyes of Asian American Rachel Chu, who travels to Singapore (my country) with her boyfriend Nicholas Young to attend a friend’s wedding. There, she finds out that Nick is rich– crazy rich, and the story unfolds a conflict between Rachel and his judgmental family tree, particularly his status-obsessed mother, Eleanor.
However, the book is not solely told from this outsider’s view. After all, Crazy Rich Asians (as the title already suggests) is tale of the collective. Written in third person, the story tails various characters including Astrid Leong, Nick’s cousin whose marriage is threatened by a conspicuous text on her husband’s phone, and even Eleanor herself, who has a gossipy, more boisterous depiction than the frozen persona from the movie trailer.
The wealthy, privileged cast are often a hysterical bunch, with ingenious scenes perfect for a romcom (my favorite was one scene at a bachelor’s party, too funny to spoil.) Although sardonic, they are far more entertaining than the bland Rachel, who is void of a personality, and Nick, a rich, handsome and gentlemanly Mary Sue. That said, the book’s character count is huge, and when most of them share the same superficial qualities, they blend into an indistinguishable blur.
Because of Kwan’s use of omniscient narration, the book accommodates a tremendous amount of exposition of several characters’ pasts and descriptions of their decadent lifestyles. It’s one of the main challenges of this book, which often reads like a travel guide around first-world Asia. Avalanches of illustrious, colorful writing build an opulent universe for the crazy rich, but slows down the story’s pacing.
It takes one-fifth of the book for Rachel to arrive in Singapore. Reaching that chapter feels like a Harry Potter novel, when Harry finally reaches his magical school and you know the story becomes infinitely more enthralling. It also takes three-fifths before Rachel eventually meets her secret hater Eleanor in the flesh (the mother’s fake warmth was quite amusing, I must add.) By then, the plot had flatlined because of the characters’ repetitive exposures to affluence, which while initially fascinating, loses its thrill after the ninety-ninth derivation.
As an outsider, Rachel doesn’t play the part well. Kwan doesn’t capture much intimidation and discomfort in this middle-class economics professor from the US who steps into the apex of Asian riches. In fact, most of the story is a conveyer belt of lighthearted experiences than a rollercoaster of emotional events; one argument between a couple was unsettlingly nonchalant.
Compensating the stagnating pacing is the last one-fifth of the book, which jam packs a barrage of sinister twists and turns, some clichéd and characteristic of an Asian soap opera. It was the story as its quickest paced, but the subplots culminate in an abrupt ending I can only compare to E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. There is no satisfying resolution; it instead leaves room for Kwan’s sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, the same way James’s first novel was really a serial published in three clunky instalments.
As a reader, I’m not quite impressed by the merits of this book… but as a Singaporean myself, my experience with Crazy Rich Asians is already predisposed. My country’s flavor informs the story’s world-building and makes the book entertaining read that hits close to home, even if I’m not a crazy rich Asian myself. I feel a personal delight from the moment the story reaches Changi Airport and ventures into Lau Pa Sat, one of my nation’s many iconic food haunts.
Kwan is a Singapore-born who moved to Texas at 11 and has since become a naturalized American living in Manhattan; he even has an American accent now. Nonetheless, he powerfully recalls the Singaporean creole, Singlish, filling much of his prose with terms like “lah” and “shiok” that Singaporeans use in casual, everyday speech.
However, his command of Singlish is slightly outdated: “alamak” is one of his go-to-s that virtually no one uses anymore. Some of his insertions of the suffix “lah” are awkwardly misplaced; this colloquial patois actually has a flourishing syntax.
But if it’s one thing that Kwan nails wonderfully in his debut novel, it’s the ethnic Chinese’s obsession with wealth and the Singaporean obsession with status. Money is power in all societies, but Singaporeans truly live by this saying, and the nation’s richest are the godliest.
The only eyebrow raiser in the book about my country? When Nick says at one point, “Singapore is one of the most progressive countries in the world.” Our business sector is progressive. Our laws and societal values, not really. After all, Singapore bans bubblegum and e-cigarettes, limits support for single parents and the LGBT, and on specific circumstances, can incarcerate people without trial.
…but we can say “shit” on national TV where Americans can’t.
Ultimately, there’s nothing about Crazy Rich Asians that makes it a must-read, whether or not you’re a curious Singaporean or an impartial reader. I haven’t read many humorous novels, but I have a hunch Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the funniest one you can find in the bookstore. And as far as the plot goes, how many more times do you wanna hear a story about an outsider the superior world rejects?
I’m not giving the sequel a try. The movie will suffice.