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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan tells the story of an economics professor named Rachel Chu and her boyfriend, Nick, a history professor. Both work in New York City and live modest lives, but unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick comes from a wildly rich and powerful family in Singapore, a fact...

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Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan tells the story of an economics professor named Rachel Chu and her boyfriend, Nick, a history professor. Both work in New York City and live modest lives, but unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick comes from a wildly rich and powerful family in Singapore, a fact she finds out when she accompanies him there to attend his friend’s wedding. Before they leave for Singapore, however, Nick’s mother learns that her son is bringing home his girlfriend, who she knows to be middle-class and believes to be a gold-digger. She hires a private investigator to follow Rachel, determined to destroy their relationship.

When Nick and Rachel arrive in Singapore, Rachel is subjected to horrible treatment by Nick’s family and friends. Moreover, Nick’s mother, through her private investigator, has uncovered dark secrets from Rachel’s past that she divulges to Rachel in an attempt to show that she is an unsuitable wife for someone of Nick’s stature. Thus, Rachel learns that her father is not dead, as she was led to believe, but in jail. She also learns that the man she believed to be her father is not, and that her mother is wanted for kidnapping. Finally, Rachel’s mother comes forward and tells Rachel the story she has kept from her for many years. Rachel bonds with her mother and eventually with Nick, who had nothing to do with the cruel actions of his crazy family.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1620

Author: Kevin Kwan (b. 1974)

Publisher: Doubleday (New York). 416 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 2010

Locale: Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians offers its readers a fascinating close look at the world of the superrich of Singapore. Kevin Kwan's debut novel brims with deftly drawn characters that come to life on a canvas studded with the goods of the luxury product industry.

With Crazy Rich Asians, debut novelist Kevin Kwan takes his readers on a tour well spiced with the irony of the lavish world of Singapore's ultrarich. This world is smartly introduced through the eyes of Rachel Chu, an American-born Chinese woman, or "ABC" in the cultural slang of Asians and Asian Americans. Rachel, whose single mother raised her to become an economics professor at New York University, has no idea that her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, a professor in the history department, comes from a family that is rich beyond imagination.

Rachel agrees to accompany Nicholas to Singapore in the summer of 2010, where he is the best man at his boyhood friend Colin Khoo's wedding. There, Rachel, along with the readers of Crazy Rich Asians, plunges into a close encounter with people whose wealth seems to make them utterly remote from everybody else. However, Rachel soon learns that common human maladies trouble even the lives of those who appear to have it all. Jealousy, envy, desire, frustration, revenge fantasies, and hatred are widespread among people whom life seems to have favored more than others.

Kevin Kwan began his literary career as a producer of lavishly illustrated coffee table books, including I Was Cuba (2007) and Luck: An Essential Guide (2008), written with Deborah Aaronson. Crazy Rich Asians is Kwan's first novel.

In various interviews, Kwan has stated that the idea for Crazy Rich Asians had been a long time in coming. For inspiration, Kwan drew upon his own family and his childhood in Singapore, which he left at age twelve for Houston, Texas, where his parents relocated. Yet Kwan has insisted that Crazy Rich Asians is primarily fiction, a social satire about a group of people whose lifestyle seems beyond the range of most people in the world. As Rachel's college friend Goh Peik Lin tells her, people like the families of Nicholas and Colin "are crazy rich." Kwan's novel brings them to life, with all of their foibles and eccentricities as well as their normal human concerns, such as the longings for love and happiness.

Crazy Rich Asians works well because of the realism with which Kwan describes how his characters' families and their family members operate, ranging from concerned, ambitious mothers to wary fathers and jealous siblings and cousins. There is an obsession with family background, lineage, and material prospects that appears to put European aristocracy to shame. Yet for all his ironic distance, Kwan reserves a great sense of authorial sympathy for all, even the most despicable of his characters. His depiction of them never strips them of their basic human dignity, even if they make an unwitting spectacle of themselves.

The novel is at its ironic best when it shows how unaware Rachel is when drawn into the maelstrom of Nicholas's family and their obsessions. His proposal that she accompany him to Singapore during summer break is overheard in the café by Celine Lim, a fashion student from Singapore who recognizes Nicholas. This sets in motion a hilarious grapevine connection that quickly informs Nicholas's mother, Eleanor Sung, of the situation. Desperate to find out more about the woman who may exert a hold on her son's heart, Eleanor engages private detectives to find out all she can about Rachel. This leads her to a family secret that near the novel's end threatens to destroy Rachel and her relationship with Nicholas.

By setting up many foils, or counterparts, to the protagonists, Crazy Rich Asians presents humorous fictional alternatives to its two central characters. Nicholas's best friend from childhood, Colin, marries the wealthy Araminta Lee. Her family approves of the match to gain access to Singapore's social upper crust. Colin follows the social dictates of his family to marry a suitably rich woman and conforms with their expectations, whereas Nicholas does not. This allows readers to observe that two characters from a similar background can make two different life choices; people are not necessarily dictated by circumstances but can exert their free will.

Similar to Nicholas, his cousin Astrid Leong also prefers romance over her family's expectations. In her case, she falls in love with and marries the handsome Singaporean Special Forces officer Michael Teo, with whom she has a young son. Here, through the juxtaposition of Astrid and Nicholas, Crazy Rich Asians probes the effect of gender on a marriage of disproportionate wealth. In a marriage between an incredibly rich woman and a strong but proud self-made man, the challenges that arise can be very different from those a rich man marrying a poor woman might face. As the founder of his own computer start-up company, for instance, Michael rejects the way his wife's family treats him almost as a computer handyman.

Kwan's deft creation of foils to his central couple works well throughout the novel. With Colin's friend Bernard Tai, Kwan presents the quintessential spoiled brat. Because of family business connections between the Khoos and the Tais, Colin allows Bernard to organize his bachelor party, even though he and Bernard are very different. Whereas Colin, like Nicholas, is a basically good human being, Bernard indulges in drugs, gambles his money away, and visits prostitutes. In the end, he attracts the notice of a real gold digger, the Hong Kong soap opera actress Kitty Pong. Kitty at first befriends Nicholas's cousin Alistair Cheng, to the horror of the extended Young family, before an intrigue deflects her onto Bernard. In presenting numerous different wealthy characters, from the down-to-earth Nicholas to the irresponsible Bernard, Kwan avoids stereotypical generalizations about the "crazy rich" as a whole.

Overall, Kwan tells his story in accessible language. His focus is on witty dialogue and swift and sure characterizations. He sets up surprises for his characters based on their different assumptions about specific situations. As one might expect, his narrative mentions the names of the many brand-name luxury goods so many of his characters pursue. Here, Kwan proves an astute observer of reality. He describes how even the rich take delight in "free gifts" when spending fortunes on cosmetics, for example.

True to form, Kwan shows how a bevy of Singapore's ultrarich society women take pleasure in buying "real fakes." These are goods produced with the same materials and in the same factories where their corresponding brand-name goods are manufactured. The factory makes more goods than those ordered by the European luxury company and sells the surplus goods on the black market. On a shopping trip to Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in China, just outside Hong Kong, Eleanor and her companions seem to take more pleasure in securing these steeply discounted fake brand-name goods than in spending tens of thousands of dollars on the real thing.

Kwan convincingly shows how upper-class Singaporean society is still in the thrall of Western consumer goods. Singapore's postcolonial society orients itself according to the measures of the former colonial power of Great Britain. This is utterly opposed to the situation in South Korea and Taiwan, where Japanese culture is not pursued with the vengeance that the characters of Crazy Rich Asians demonstrate in their pursuit of all things British, right down to their anglicized names.

There is only one moment when Kwan's debut novel rings false for the sake of moving the plot to its climax. As Crazy Rich Asians observes through Rachel's thoughts, introducing a girlfriend to the family is a serious matter for a young Asian man. This is especially true for elite families such as the Youngs. Indeed, Nicholas stays with Rachel at a hotel until his grandmother, Shan Su Yi, meets Rachel at a dinner party at Shan's palatial estate—aptly called Tyersall Park, reflecting the matriarch's British cultural orientation. When Rachel meets Shan Su Yi, the old woman invites Nick to bring Rachel to her home, noting, "It's so silly to be staying at a hotel when your bedroom is waiting right here." When Rachel has private time with the matriarch, Shan Su Yi seems to warm to her. Yet once Eleanor has rallied her forces to try to expel Rachel, the matriarch suddenly shifts sides and seems to perceive Rachel as a mere plaything her grandson will discard at a moment's notice. This abrupt shift leaves the reader rather puzzled by this character's inconsistent behavior, which serves only to enable the final showdown between Nicholas and his family.

All in all, Kwan's debut novel entrances its readers with a well-observed and tellingly described glimpse into the world of Singapore's ultrarich elite. The author shows sympathy for all of his characters despite their follies, pretentions, and desires. By placing two immensely likeable, modest lovers in the middle of people who are too often blinded by their incredible material wealth, Crazy Rich Asians offers a wonderful glimpse at the lives of those whom fortune favors to an astonishing degree. Throughout the novel, however, readers should always remember the words of Rachel's mother: "Not everyone is rich in Asia, you know."

Review Sources

  • Rev. of Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan. Kirkus Reviews 1 June 2013: 20. Print.
  • Rev. of Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan. Library Journal 1 Mar. 2013: 3. Print.
  • Huntley, Kristine. Rev. of Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan. Booklist 15 May 2013: 15. Print.
  • Lee, Stephan. Rev. of Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan. Entertainment Weekly 14 June 2013: 98. Print.
  • Maslin, Janet. "A Family Blinded by Bling and Fancy Designer Names." Rev. of Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan. New York Times 1 July 2013: C1. Print.
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