Review | Sex and Vanity, Kevin Kwan

SexAndVanityCoverSex 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.

Book Excerpt | Have You Seen These Children? A Memoir by Dr. Veronica Slaughter

Have You Seen These Children book coverI’m always excited to discover new-to-me Filipino authors, so when I was contacted about Dr. Veronica Slaughter’s memoir Have You Seen These Children?, I was intrigued. Told from the perspective of the author’s 8-year-old self, the memoir tells the story of Veronica and her siblings as they were kidnapped by their American father and brought to the United States.

I haven’t read the book. Just with the pandemic and everything else going on in the world, I felt like the subject matter was a bit too heavy and emotionally difficult for me right now. But the concept is interesting, and I can see it resonating with many other readers, so I’ve requested an excerpt to share with you, in the event it looks like a book for your TBR.

Have You Seen These Children? publishers August 18, 2020.

Excerpt

From Chapter 6: The Happiest Place on Earth

We had a telephone in our coffee shop that the American customers paid us to use. Dad asked Mom if she wanted to call his friends.

“No, it’s okay,” she said. “You can take them, but they need to be back before noon.”

Vance and I grabbed Mom’s arms and started pulling her from behind the counter. We were spinning with joy.

Mom looked at us. “I’m not coming,” she said. “You’re going with your father.”

I stopped jumping up and down. I didn’t want to go without her.

“Soling and I have too much to do,” she said, shrugging. People lined up before we were open; they could hardly wait to get their brewed coffee and warm donuts. And visiting with Dad had put Mom behind. She needed to prepare food, fry dozens more donuts, and get more coffee brewing. Soling had to stack the dishes, wipe the counter, sweep the floor, and finish folding the napkins Vincent and I had started. Mom never used paper napkins because it was wasteful, so Soling washed and ironed the cloth ones every night.

Mom thanked Dad for the envelope and told him twice to make sure we were back before noon…. Dad wrote down the number of the hotel and the names of his friends on a piece of paper, then handed it to Mom. We hadn’t finished our chores, but Mom said it was okay, we could do them when we got back.

Mom packed a large box of hot donuts for Dad’s friends. She wrote something on the box, but I couldn’t read her cursive. I loved to look at my mother’s handwriting. It was like a beautiful drawing, with lots of loops and curls.

Soling kept saying, “Mo kuyog ko nila”…. “I will go with them.” I didn’t want to go without Mom or Soling, but I also knew they had lots of work to do before opening the coffee shop. Mom told Soling not to worry…. that we’d be back in a few hours and the hotel was only a block away.

Valorie, now nine years old, was the only one with a watch because she was the eldest. Mom told her it was her job to keep track of the time and remind Dad not to be late. Then she packed our new bathing suits, small towels, and extra underwear in small plastic g=bags with handles, each one a different color. Mom always did that so we’d know which bag belonged to who.

At the last minute, Mom said maybe Vincent should stay because he was too young to be near a pool. But he started crying and ran to me; where I went, Vincent went.

“I’ll be in the pool with them the whole time,” Dad reassured her and I told her I’d keep my eyes on Vincent every minute. I promised in the name of God, because that’s what you say when you really mean something.

As I grabbed Vincent’s hand, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. I thought maybe I’d eaten too many donut holes. Then it was hugs and kisses from Mom, then Soling, then Mom again. She instructed us to be polite and behave ourselves.

Soling was not smiling. She looked upset. She held my hand tight until we got to the car. As we started piling in, I remembered my rosary. I never went anywhere without my rosary. I felt safer with it, especially when Mom wasn’t around. “Wait, Daddy, wait!” I cried, then jumped out and ran upstairs to get it.

When I came down, Mom said, “Don’t lose it, you’ll need it for Mass tomorrow.”

“I won’t!” I climbed into the backseat.

Dad took the box of donuts from Mom and told her how much he appreciated her letting us go, then kissed her cheek. It was the first time in three years she had let us go anywhere with him. I was happy she trusted him again. I waved to her and Soling out the back window. Mom waved back, the piece of paper Dad had given her with his friend’s phone number on it gripped in her fingers. Soling didn’t wave; she just stood there like a statue. I kept waving until they disappeared.

I felt that sick feeling in my stomach again.

After driving for a while, Dad said, “Okay, now for the big surprise.” He told us we were flying to America! We would have television and bicycles, and we would go to Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth!

There was more screaming and clapping in the car.

But not from me.

“What about Mom and Soling?” I asked.

He told us our mother knew all about the trip and had wanted it to be a surprise. He said they would be following shortly, but first they had to pack our things.

I felt confused. Why didn’t Mom tell us? Why did Dad have to beg her to let us go if she know about it? I didn’t like this surprise. I asked about Lee’s Coffee Shop. Dad said not to worry, that Mom had lots of people to take care of the coffee shop. I couldn’t imagine who would make the brewed coffee and donuts. Only Mom and Soling knew how to do that. What about all our customers? What about our apartment upstairs? What about all the souvenirs hanging on the coffee shop door? Did Lolo and Lola know we were going to America?

The sick feeling in my stomach was worse now, and it wasn’t going away.

About the Book

Have You Seen These Children book coverFour young children caught between love and hate―hostages to the cruelty of revenge. A deceitful American father and a naïve decision by a Filipino mother transformed their lives forever.

Valorie, Veronica, Vance, and Vincent’s perfect world turned into a nightmare one hot afternoon in 1959 in Cebu, Philippines. What was to be a quick lunch with their father turned into a flight to America, where four dreadfully long years of running from state to state, hiding, and vanishing into the night followed. Kidnapped from the only world they knew, confusion quickly set in. At nine, Valorie, the eldest, liked seeing their father after his absence for over a year. Vance, a timid six-year-old, went along with whatever Valorie did. Vincent, the baby at three, cried for his mother while clinging to Veronica for comfort. Veronica, eight, was the only one who was truly panicked by what was happening around them―and she recognized instantly that she and her siblings would have to stick together in order to survive. In that moment, her childhood ended and the warrior within her emerged.

Moving from state to state and school to school, avoiding the law, looking over their shoulders at every turn, the four Slaughter children found themselves fighting not only the heartbreak of separation from their loving mother but also poverty, discrimination, and abuse. Their only weapons were their deep love for one another and an unwavering determination to survive the trials they faced―and find their way back to their mother.

About the Author

Veronica Slaughter - author photoDr. Veronica Slaughter was born in the Philippines to an American father and a Filipino mother in 1951. At eight, she, along with her siblings, were kidnapped by their father and brought to the United States. In spite of her turbulent childhood, she was able to achieve the American Dream through her resilience and determination. In 2017, she retired from her thirty-five-year chiropractic practice in California and moved to the beautiful island of Maui, where she continues to live with her many animals. She has one son; he lives in Northern California and is the love of her life. www.veronicaslaughter.com / Instagram: @VeronicaSlaughter.

Review | Your Truth or Mine? by Trisha Sakhlecha

YourTruthOrMineCoverYour Truth or Mine? begins with a knock at the door of Mia and Roy Kapoor. A young woman has gone missing, and the police want to bring Roy in for questioning.

As the story unfolds, it soon becomes clear that Mia and Roy are far from the happily married couple they appear to be. For avid thriller readers, it will likely come as no surprise that Roy is hiding secrets from Mia, which go beyond a single infidelity.

What did come as a surprise to me is not so much that Mia also has secrets of her own, but that the problems in Mia and Roy’s marriage go beyond infidelity and the standard-issue loneliness / restlessness that often leads to it. Rather, Sakhlecha explores a darker angle to their relationship, and delves deep into how Mia’s experiences in childhood have contributed to how she deals with her current situation.

At the end, the bad guy is someone I didn’t suspect until fairly late in the story. The reveal of their identity is powerful not so much in the shock of it being someone unexpected. Rather, its power is in the realization that this person’s actions further compound on the themes of vulnerability, trust, and the abuse thereof, which were among the drivers of the narrative.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a solid, twisty, psychological thriller that kept me turning the pages even in the midst of a soporific heat wave. More than the thriller aspect, however, I like how it explored the overall twistiness of relationships, and how trauma from particular relationships in one’s past can contribute to a destructive cycle in one’s relationships moving forward.

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Thank you to Publisher’s Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.