Synopsis: When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home, long drives to explore the island, and quality time with the man she might one day marry. What she does not know is that Nick’s family home happens to look like a palace, that she will ride in more private planes than cars, and that with one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors on her arm, Rachel might as well have a target on her back. Initiated into a world of dynastic splendor beyond imagination, Rachel meets Astrid, the It Girl of Singapore society; Eddie, whose family practically lives in the pages of the Hong Kong socialite magazines; and Eleanor, Nick’s formidable mother, a woman who has very strong feelings about who her son should–and should not–marry. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Themes Explored: relationships, money, class differences, love, family, maternal-son relationships, marriage, sacrifice, wealth, boredom, power, inferiority, insecurities, real estate investing, fashion, luxury goods, Singapore culture.
Review: Instead of Prince Charming, Cinderella meets a rich, good-looking heir to a real estate empire. One caveat, she has no idea that he is insanely wealthy. Crazy Rich Asians takes the basic Cinderella plot and supercharges it into the 21st century, with hilarious results. I think I am the only person in America who has not seen the movie yet, I wanted to read the book first.
Crazy Rich Asians succeeds as a story due to the universality of the narrative, all the events depicted could occur anywhere to anyone. All the world building and Singapore specific details set the story apart from other modern “Cinderellaesque” narratives. In this case, “Cinderella” is Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American NYU economics professor who comes from a tough childhood. Her mom, a single mother, raised her alone while hopping between low paying waitress jobs while trying to get a real estate license. When the story starts, Rachel’s boyfriend of two years, Nick Young, attempts to persuade her to visit his family in Singapore. For the entire two years they have dated, Rachel always assumed Nick, a fellow adjust professor, came from a similar middle-class background and he never corrected this misunderstanding. However, marriage is on his mind when Nick invites Rachel to come with him to Singapore to meet his family and attend his friend’s (Colin) wedding. Rachel soon realizes that Nick is a little more financially stable than she expected-to say the least.
The narrative unfolds through three people’s point-of-view: Rachel, Nick, and Astrid. Astrid is Nick’s cousin and is the “It Girl” of upper class Singapore society. Of all Nick’s family, only Astrid knows about Rachel and has met her a couple of times in New York. Like most of the family, Astrid exhibits a larger-than-life affinity for shopping, has a stubborn streak, and a lot of heartbreak. Her husband, Michael, comes from much humbler beginnings and feels inferior in Astrid’s world. Her relatives do not help matters by treating Michael like the family’s personal IT department.
Michael and Astrid have the most complicated relationship arc in the book. Their subplot explores class differences, insecurities, and how massive wealth can negatively influence familial relationships. I think this particular subplot serves as a nice reverse of Rachel and Nick. Whereas Rachel and Nick built a strong relationship based upon mutual attraction and compatibility, Astrid and Michael used money and sex to shore up the holes in their relationship. As with all things built upon illusion, the foundation cracks and everything comes tumbling down. Not that Astrid remains down for long; she is too resourceful to let a relationship failing hold her back.
Helping Rachel navigate the social and fashion culture of Singapore is Goh Peik Lin, her former roommate from college. Peik Lin comes from a wealthy family, not as rich as Nick but still insanely well off. Armed with a full wallet and a lot of sarcasm, Peik Lin plays fairy godmother and makes sure Rachel fully knows what to expect in this weird new world. Since Rachel knows only minimal details about Nick, Peik Lin and her family go on a fact finding mission to find out as much as possible about the Young family and if they are good enough for Rachel. Peik Lin is Rachel’s best friend and does not want her getting hurt or marrying someone who will not appreciate her accomplishments and intelligence. Several times throughout the novel Peik Lin keeps Rachel firmly attached to reality and passes along her stealth intelligence about Nick.
Nick’s mom, Eleanor Young, serves as the primary antagonist. A woman with strong convictions, she does not want Nick marrying the “wrong” type of girl, which includes anyone from Taiwan, mainland China, and a poor background. An ABC-American Born Chinese-economics professor does not quite match Eleanor’s vision of Nick’s future wife. This results in Eleanor doing her best to sabotage Nick’s relationship with Rachel and makes it quite apparent that she does not approve.
While marketed as a comedy, the book serves more as a drama of manners with some comedic undertones. The heart of the book, the romance angle, takes a backseat to the intricacies of navigating an unfamiliar world. Unlike most of Nick’s family, Rachel works. In Singaporean culture, as depicted in the book, all the women Rachel’s age get married and then stop working to raise the kids. Rachel expresses her desire to keep working, which sends shock waves through Eleanor and the other matrons of high society. A lot of backstabbing, catty ex-girlfriends, and bored socialites looking for a thrill follow Rachel throughout her short stay in Singapore. This week does not quite go as Nick planned.
Overall, I liked the book. It took me a couple of chapters to get involved in the narrative; I was expecting a different type of story. Kevin Kwan built a world both familiar and alien at the same time. Familiar in that we all can relate to meeting a significant other’s family and the anxieties that brings out in everyone. Weird in that most of us probably do not live in multi-billion dollar mansions with butlers and chauffeured high-end sports cars. The story works because of the familiarity and feels fresh due to the setting. While not a laugh-out-loud comedy, Crazy Rich Asians presents a subtlety comedic look at the absurdity of super wealth and neurotic families. The movie, based upon the trailer, adopts a more comedic tone than the book.