Summer is traditionally the season for light reading, and right now we might be more in need than ever of something effervescent. Enter — thank goodness — Kevin Kwan.
The author of the delightfully frothy “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy is back with a new novel, just in time for all those vacations we’re not taking. His new book isn’t a continuation of the ultrarich Young family’s “Crazy Rich Asians” world (though alert readers will notice at least one cameo appearance by a beloved character from the trilogy); instead, it’s an homage to E.M. Forster’s “A Room with a View,” set in the present and crammed full of over-the-top wedding weekends, designer clothes and name-dropping.
Kwan, in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home, said he’d loved Forster’s book (and the 1985 Merchant Ivory movie) since he was “probably 15 years old,” and had for more than a decade been thinking about writing a book inspired by it. “It’s a very simple story,” said Kwan, “and yet it was very progressive and ahead of its time.”
In “A Room with a View,” written in 1908, a young Englishwoman goes to Europe for the first time, in the company of a fussy chaperone, and falls in love there with a freethinking young man — but takes a while to realize it. Kwan pointed out that Forster’s heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, is struggling to find her identity between two eras: the repression of the Victorians and the more modern Edwardian age. Years ago, he wondered what a contemporary Lucy might be like, and dreamed up Lucie Churchill — a young biracial New Yorker, struggling with being not Asian enough for one side of her family and too Asian for the other, visiting Italy and finding love.
The result, in time, was “Sex and Vanity,” both homage to “A Room with a View” and very much in Kwan’s style. It begins as Forster’s book does — with a hotel room swap — and then spins off into its own gold-plated world, with a few unexpectedly serious stops along the way. “The characters really took me to a vastly different place,” he said, “and I found myself exploring many issues, looking at identity and racism and family in a whole new way, the obligations, the various sort of minefields one has to navigate in contemporary family life.” (Note, though, that Kwan’s trademark details of rich-person excess — and his sly footnotes — are ever-present.)
Writing the book, Kwan said, was pure pleasure. “I was trying to bring myself escape and joy. I hope it translates to readers.” It is, he said, the first book in another planned trilogy, each paying tribute to a great city; the next two will be set in London and Paris.
Since the success of the “Crazy Rich Asians” movie in 2018, Kwan has moved to Los Angeles (born and raised in Singapore, he lived for many years in New York) in order to be closer to the film industry. He’s currently “heavy into the development, finalizing the script” for the second movie in the “Crazy Rich Asians” series, “China Rich Girlfriend.”
“The intention was to get it ready to film this fall, but I don’t know that’s going to happen any more. I think Hollywood is trying to figure out how everyone can safely come together. As soon as production can begin, I think it’s going to be all systems go. In the meantime, we’re taking this time to polish it up even more and tighten everything, create the perfect adaptation.”
In the meantime, he’s got a couple of television projects in development (including an untitled drama series set in Asia that he describes, intriguingly, as “’Downton Abbey’ meets David Lynch”), and is hopeful that the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” has helped open the door a bit for more Asian storytelling on screen. (He cites, among recent examples, “The Farewell” and “Always Be My Maybe.”)
“I think we’re still at the very beginning of what is very necessary change,” he said, saying that Hollywood studio gatekeepers remain hesitant about greenlighting such projects. “They still feel like it’s a huge risk. The other problem is, there are so few gatekeepers who are Asian, or who come from diverse backgrounds, that can really help lobby for these projects that really showcase something different. It’s far safer to keep doing the same franchise movie over and over than to greenlight something completely original with new story lines and characters and actors who are not household names.”
Change happens, Kwan said, at a very, very slow pace, but he’s encouraged by how “Crazy Rich Asians” quickly made rising stars of many of its previously little-known cast members: Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina. “The list has become quite impressive from just one movie,” he said. “This is a formula that to me is very compelling, but I’m not a gatekeeper, I’m just a creator and I can only keep creating and hoping one day the putty sticks to the wall.”
Kevin Kwan’s beach-read recommendations
Kwan’s witty “Sex and Vanity” is a fine beach read on its own. He also offered several other suggestions:
“A Beautiful Crime” by Christopher Bollen. “It’s set in Venice in the summertime, and it’s kind of a ‘Talented Mr. Ripley’-esque caper … This was my first escape book when lockdown happened, and it was such a respite from the early days of when no one knew what was happening and you were afraid to leave your house or touch any surface or breathe — the one book that got me out of my head and out of all the anxiety and fear.”
“The Custom of the Country” by Edith Wharton. “I love going back to the classics. This is just a delicious book. Set at the turn of the century, it reads like it could be ‘Gossip Girl’ today — nothing has changed about New York society.”
“House of Trelawney” by Hannah Rothschild. “It’s a satire of a dissipated, crumbling aristocratic family, losing their land, losing their money, losing their minds, I just laughed my way through it.”
“If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha. “This one’s more serious, but no less riveting. It’s set in contemporary Korea, about five young women basically trying to survive in different strata of Korean society. It gets into this whole world that I knew nothing about, the world of Korean plastic surgery, how important it is to look a certain way, the whole K-pop craze, the obsessions these young women have … it’s fascinating.”
“The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” by Dominick Dunne. “I very seldom reread books, but it would be fun to reread this one. It’s his retelling of a very famous murder that happened in the 1950s, the Woodward murder. He novelized it, and it’s really a fascinating, thrilling look at this compelling world of East Coast WASP privilege, upper-crust families and cover-up and social climbing, and that whole nightclub scene, back in the 1950s, fun and glamorous and timeless.”