A pair of Chinese-American women team up to launch a manufacturing and distribution business for counterfeit luxury handbags. Counterfeit is a highly entertaining crime caper novel, filled with complex get-rich schemes, shady mob-like bosses, and a pair of anti-heroines who would fit right in with Thelma and Louise and the women of Oceans 8. I want the Netflix adaptation of this novel, and even though Ava Wong and Winnie Fang are in their 30s, I’m totally already fan casting Sandra Oh and Michelle Yeoh in this buddy dramedy. How incredible would that movie or mini-series be?!
Former corporate lawyer, wife of a wealthy doctor, and mother of a son about to begin pre-school, Ava is a fairly typical, slightly bored, suburbanite. When her old college roommate, Winnie, reappears in her life with an invitation to join her lucrative counterfeit handbag business, Ava declines at first. Until a fight leads her husband to freeze her credit cards while Ava’s in China, and smuggling counterfeit handbags seems much more appealing than admitting to her gossipy relatives that she needs help.
We learn all this from Ava herself, who, when the novel begins, is in an interrogation room telling a police detective how she managed to get roped into Winnie’s criminal enterprise. Winnie’s the mastermind whom the detective is after, yet she has gone MIA, leaving Ava behind to face the consequences. As the story unfolds, we see the scheme get more elaborate and ambitious, and the story is just an absolute delight of a crime caper romp.
I absolutely love how much Chen reclaims, challenges and subverts Asian and Asian American stereotypes, not just by presenting more nuanced depictions, but also by having her characters use these stereotypes to their advantage. For example, the stereotype of Asian women being meek, submissive, and, well, harmless, plays a key role in the success of Ava and Winnie’s tactics. In one subtle yet brilliant moment, Ava walks into a department store to request a refund on a (counterfeit) luxury handbag, and immediately heads to the white saleswoman instead of the Asian one. A story Ava tells the detective about the factory in China they use to manufacture the counterfeit bags — cramped, humid, with a net at the top of the staircase blocking the elderly workers from escaping — plays into stereotypes as well, as does Ava’s absolute horror as a woman who’d been born and raised in America, Asian heritage notwithstanding. Ava’s story includes an encounter with a tween girl with missing fingers who works at that factory, and the way that detail is subverted later in the novel is just masterfully executed.
Even the scheme at the core of this novel — counterfeit luxury goods! — is itself an industry very much associated with China. Winnie’s scheme is both realistic (in this case, there’s truth to the perception), and a sly wink at anyone who may think it’s too on-the-nose to be believable. Of all the cons they could have pulled, counterfeit handbags are probably the most obvious choice, and that makes the satire particularly incisive and effective.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.