Like so many people around the world, I adored Kevin Kwan‘s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy and the movie adaptation of the first book. (The second movie should be filmed in 2021, and I can’t wait to see it, too!) Naturally, I was super excited when Kevin’s new book, Sex and Vanity, was announced, and I didn’t hesitate to pre-order my signed copy. The first of a new trilogy, Sex and Vanity still highlights the upper echelons of society, but instead of an all-Asian cast, we also spend a lot of time with the WASPs of America and European billionaires. The result is a book that’s just as fun and infectious as Crazy Rich Asians, albeit with less family drama and more romance.
Sex and Vanity kicks off a new trilogy of books set in some of the most fabulous cities of Europe. This first installment takes us to the island of Capri, off the coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The first part of the book is, in many ways, a love letter to Capri, and the setting can be viewed as the starring role. It offers a stunning backdrop for our main actors.
19-year-old Lucie Churchill and her older cousin Charlotte are vacationing in Capri for one week because of a wedding. While the bride and groom are fairly minor players here, they bring together a rich cast of characters from all over the globe. Lucie meets 20-year-old George Zao and his mother Rosemary on her first day, and although she’s at first repelled by George, a series of incidents keeps drawing her to him. By the end of the wedding party, the two have made a real connection, but they’re doomed to part ways.
Fast forward five years, and Lucie – back in New York City – has moved on and gotten engaged to a Texas billionaire. But when George unexpectedly enters her life once again, she starts to question what her future holds and who she really is. Sex and Vanity tackles bigger issues, including class, race, and grief. Even so, it’s generally light and sweet, offering plenty of humor and escapist fun, too.
There’s a lot I love about Sex and Vanity. Since it’s the theme that holds this new trilogy together, let’s talk about that gorgeous setting first, shall we?
Capri makes for a breath-taking backdrop throughout the first part of this book. Kevin Kwan does an excellent job of painting images of the glittering azure sea, the palatial hotels and monuments, and the narrow streets filled with tiny shops. The scenery transported me back to my own trips to Italy. (I visited Rome in 2013 – the same year this book starts off! – and honeymooned in Venice, Florence, and Milan in 2018 – incidentally, when part two takes place. Sadly, I’ve yet to visit Capri… but now it’s high on my list!)
Even when the plot moves to New York City, the setting vividly adds to the story. Since I’ve actually been to NYC a few times, I was happily able to clearly envision several of the locations the characters visit.
Beyond the stunning locales, Sex and Vanity also offers up a lot of what readers love about Kevin Kwan. As with Crazy Rich Asians, it’s a destination wedding that throws our wealthy characters together. True to style, we spend our time with a group of ultra-rich people doing things that are unimaginable to the rest of us poorer folk. Even so, it’s fun to vicariously live through them, if only for a few days. We revel in their extravagance, but we also see their glaring faults – greed, narcissism, being completely out of touch with how normal people live. Luckily, some of the characters here are more down-to-earth (and, thus, relatable and likable).
Though it’s a fictitious novel (albeit one that lifts from some of Kevin Kwan’s own experiences and observations), one charming element that carried over from the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy is the author’s use of footnotes. He can be seen as an intrusive narrator in that regard, but it primarily comes out in these educational and opinionated footnotes. For example, a character may say something, then in the footnote, Kevin states, “Actually, she’s wrong. This is what actually happened.” It’s funny and adds familiarity, and it takes us out of this fantasy land just long enough to remind us of what’s real.
There is some unexpected depth here, too. One event during the Capri trip is shocking and serious, and it eventually relates to a past tragedy. It makes the characters more authentic and human, and made them feel more important to me. Like Lucie, I also lost my dad to an untimely death years ago, and her grief – even if no longer fresh – felt poignant and authentic.
I also enjoyed the examination of race and identity. Lucie is a biracial woman: her mom is Chinese, but her dad is a white American with roots going back the the Mayflower. Lucie’s always felt out of place on her dad’s side of the family, and George being 7/8 Chinese brings up her own reservations about racial identity.
Throughout the book, the characters are memorable and vivid. Something about the snobby, over-the-top characters is particularly fun, and even if you hate them, they’re fun to watch. (Watch out for the description of Cecil Pike’s uniquely odd accent on page 154 – what even? What an incredible accent!) But more meaningful are the characters with emotional depth, such as Lucie’s immediate family. They show another side of the ultra-rich, and I loved the close connection between Lucie and her mother and brother.
Fortunately, issues in Sex and Vanity are minimal. Early on, it was hard to see the chemistry between Lucie and George. While I liked them each as characters, their quiet natures made it harder to get to know them (odd, since I’m an introvert myself); I didn’t fully understand the instant dislike and, later, growing feelings between them. Nonetheless, I was rooting for them, and they felt more real to me later in the novel.
Also, I hate to point it out, but there was one legitimate mistake in Sex and Vanity: In 2018, the song “Señorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello is used in a (hilarious) proposal scene. But that song didn’t come out until June 2019. This only matters if you care about music release timelines, but as a music journalist (shameless plug: check out my site, Hidden Jams), it’s something I couldn’t help but notice. Sorry! This scene was amazing though, so it’s worth suspending a bit of reality for.
Though it took me some time to really get into it, I ended up loving Sex and Vanity, and flew through the last half rapidly. If you loved the Crazy Rich Asians series, you’re sure to love this one, too. It’s fun, idyllic, and romantic, but it also offers depth and poignancy.
Sex and Vanity is the first in Kevin Kwan’s new trilogy. Look out for the next two books, set in London and Paris, respectively, in the coming years. I can hardly wait!