Sex and Vanity is disappointing compared to Crazy Rich Asians. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy had humour, heart, and relationships that felt real even amidst all the satire about super wealth. In contrast, Sex and Vanity felt flat, a paint-by-numbers plot where events happen just to move the story forward.
The first half, about Lucie and George’s hate-to-love whirlwind affair in Capri, was just boring. The characters had zero chemistry, Lucie’s dislike for George was tepid at best, and while George was sweet, he was also too bland to be interesting. The dude is a super rich surfer environmentalist, yet all these attributes are listed off rather than actually apparent in his character. Bonus hero points for when he saves a stranger’s life, but beyond that, he’s pretty meh.
The story does pick up in the second half, when we move to New York and see Lucie engaged to another rich dude Cecil. Finally things happen, and emotions rise in the story. But that has less to do with the actual main characters and more to do with the side characters. I love the friendship between Lucie’s mom Marian and George’s mom Rosemary, easily the two most interesting characters in the book.
Cecil is an ass, but in ways that are sometimes hilarious or sympathetic, and his actions add dimension to Lucie’s scenes. Their bedroom role playing scene was hilarious and more compelling than most of Lucie and George’s kissing scenes.
Lucie’s brother Freddie is rarely on-screen, but when he is, he steals the show. Lucie complains about how charismatic he is, and even on-page, he does have charisma.
I do like how actually devastating the event was that ultimately separated Lucie and George in Capri. Like ok, I get why Charlotte would freak out over that, and why Lucie would be embarrassed by the surprise fallout five years later. I do wish the fallout had happened at Capri, or at least more had come of the surprise fallout event in the second half. Because the event is set up as something that truly traumatized Lucie and made her determined never to be with George and like, literally, no one else cared about it, and it had zero impact on her reputation. So like, what’s your problem, Lucie?
I also like how Kwan explores Lucie’s internalized racism as a byproduct of her biracial heritage (3rd gen Chinese-American mom, white dad whose ancestors came on the Mayflower and signed the Declaration of Independence) and upbringing (her white family’s casual racism, their limited relationship with her mom’s side of the family). I also like how Kwan contrasts Lucie and Freddie’s experiences, with Freddie often coded as white, and Lucie looking more Chinese and sometimes mistaken for a food delivery person. These are experiences biracial folks likely do experience, and I love how Kwan digs into all the nuances of this. So bump up to 3 stars for this.
That being said, the core story about Lucie and George’s relationship fell flat. Even in the more entertaining second half, we barely understand why George is still interested in her, and all we see is Lucie looking down on George’s mom Rosemary. Rosemary herself later excuses Lucie’s actions as internalized racism, but like, no. While internalized racism is a thing, the way Lucie tears Rosemary down to others is just cruel and petty.
The thing is, Lucie isn’t even cruel in a compelling way. Eleanor in Crazy Rich Asians did some mean things, but she was a complex character who had heart. In contrast, Lucie is set up as a naive goody two shoes, who does things out of…I’m not even sure…fear? She’s a watery, watered down person, and apart from the internalized racism stuff, more a Victorian archetype than a fully realized character.
The resolution in the epilogue was nice, but felt totally unearned.