‘China Rich Girlfriend’ offers glimpse of Asian privileged class

Kevin Kwan’s lively “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Kevin Kwan’s lively “Crazy Rich Asians.”

If summer is a time when we allow ourselves to simply enjoy our entertainments, there’s no timely cocktail I’d rather recommend than “China Rich Girlfriend,” the sequel to Kevin Kwan’s lively “Crazy Rich Asians.”

The story of Rachel Chu, a Chinese immigrant and economics professor who discovers that her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, isn’t merely a well-dressed academic but the scion of an outrageously large fortune back home in Singapore, is as frothy as the egg whites on the sort of cocktail you should drink while reading Kwan’s books. But if you need to assuage your guilt about summer reading with a little intellectual patina, Kwan has you covered, too. His peek into this rarified world is spiked with tart observations about old and new money, the nuances of racism and the way they all interact.

Kwan isn’t precisely a contemporary Jane Austen, a sobriquet that at some point gets attached to anyone who writes love stories that reviewers don’t feel embarrassed about reading. His prose is not nearly as memorable, though he has a terrific eye for cultural detail, providing witty footnotes that explain everything from Singapore’s food culture to highly colorful Hokkien cussing. Nicholas and Rachel are more Bingley and Jane than Darcy and Elizabeth. They’re so sweet and naive that people do worse than cheat them, which makes the pair a good object for a story, if not particularly strong subjects, in the way moral exemplars so frequently fail to be.

For Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Kwan’s got Nick’s mother, Eleanor, who’s both a poisonous doyenne and an object of some sympathy. Despite her aristocratic lineage, she has never quite been accepted into the uber-exclusive family into which she married, and she’s eager for Nick not to suffer the same ostracism.

In the place of the vain and reckless Lydia Bennet, Kwan gives us Kitty Pong, a porn star-turned-soap opera star who seduces first one super-rich young man into an engagement and then dumps him for an even richer prospect. Kitty is a moral fable in “Crazy Rich Asians,” the trashy gold digger to whom the virtuous Rachel is unfairly compared by Nick’s prejudiced relatives.

But in “China Rich Girlfriend,” she undergoes a decadent, liberating transformation, first signing up for etiquette lessons with an expensive consultant, and then ditching Singapore’s money for the Chinese boom and embracing her talents as a mistress.

And instead of the timid but tender Miss Darcy, we have Astrid Leong, Nick’s cousin, who after a wildly privileged upbringing finds herself befuddled by the emotional complexities of adult life, particularly those involving her marriage to Michael Teo.

Michael, a former star military officer born into a radically different class than Astrid’s, first finds Astrid’s money a burden. Then, when he acquires his own tech-boom billion, Michael embraces the vulgarities of wealth – obvious yachts, expensive cars and flashy watches – rather than the unique experiences and artful things that Astrid, a couture collector and patron of the arts, values. Their incompatibility turns out not to be about money, but about sensibility and personal confidence.

Though Jane Austen tended to treat social class and the strictures on female behavior as things that could be overcome by true goodness, real intelligence and moral growth, “Crazy Rich Asians” and “China Rich Girlfriend” have a slightly more skeptical perspective.

Kwan isn’t shy about the fact that these fizzy, highly entertaining novels are a structural critique of hyper-accumulated wealth, even as he appreciates the beauty it’s possible to buy and create with it.

China Rich Girlfriend

Kevin Kwan

Doubleday, 400 pages