Sex and Vanity is what A Room With a View might have been if E. M. Forster’s characters had been micron-deep, Instagram-obsessed and unable to make conversation. To understand Kwan’s novel it’s probably best that you revisit Forster’s, or at least watch the Merchant Ivory film adaptation...Then you will know which Edwardian plot device Kwan has replaced with drones ... This author is savvy enough to preserve his winning formula, at least in pieces. He takes care to include an insanely lavish wedding, in this case early in the book ... But neither Lucie nor any of her friends has anything smart or funny to say about their tourism. This is a surprise and a disappointment, since Kwan’s barbed insights made the earlier books so much fun ... Perhaps the world has changed more than he has. Maybe we’re not in the mood for a bookload of meringue ...But consider this, as others have already suggested: There’s no other way you’re getting to Capri this summer. Here’s a ticket. Too bad it’s not first class.
Some of the most stirring moments of the book occur when Kwan appears to address microaggressions against Asians, particularly within one’s own family ... Kwan’s fun with Forster notwithstanding, Sex and Vanity isn’t merely a rewrite of A Room With a View; reminiscent of Kwan’s earlier novels, it showcases his talent for creating flamboyant characters and settings that anyone can enjoy: no prior knowledge of the novel’s literary inspiration is required. At the same time, it’s also a timely story that pokes not too gently at some of society’s less tractable flaws.
Part of the novel’s fun is that Kwan is in on the joke: He excels at satirizing the uber-rich. He’s also an Olympic-level name-dropper. If I had a dollar for every reference to an A-list designer or brand mentioned here, I’d be — well, still not a fraction as wealthy as these characters ... Kwan’s trademark snark, which hooked Crazy Rich Asians fans, remains on display in this new offering. As in his earlier novels, his flippant footnotes are at times more enticing than the story line itself ... Though Kwan hints at the complexities of being mixed-race, there’s no deep, meaningful takeaway buried in the story. Few of the characters are particularly likable, and they’re certainly not relatable....the novel lacks the pizazz that made Crazy Rich so successful ... Still, come for vacuous entertainment, and Sex and Vanity delivers. It’s all style and little substance...At a time when travel plans have been jettisoned or postponed, the novel offers a fun-filled vacation to a world marred only by the most trivial concerns. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and readers who follow suit can revel in the kind of extravagances that sound like a dream after months of isolation and anxiety during the coronarvirus pandemic ... It’s like a bubbly glass of expensive champagne: It goes down easy, but don’t expect to remember it the next day.
The plot is perhaps not the most important element for Kwan’s fans, who most love his over-the-top characters, ridiculously lavish details, and catty, fourth-wall-breaking narration, all of which are gloriously represented here; there are jewels galore, and a West Village apartment with an indoor canal and gondoliers on retainer. Lucie’s story also touches on racism, both external (and familial) and internalized, as she fights her attraction to George. The resolution adds another satisfying layer to this frothy, escapist delight.
... while it may be heavy on Instagram, flash mobs and Givenchy, its characters’ concerns are as fusty as EM Forster’s ... Kwan is good on the casual racism his characters come up against ... Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan’s debut, was a very funny book that wickedly satirised the obscene excess of the Chinese-Singaporean elite. In Sex and Vanity he attempts more of the same, only this time his sights are on money-mad Americans, Europeans and Asian-Americans. Unfortunately the decadence feels much tamer ... The overkill of detail is also a problem. Barely anyone can get dressed without Kwan mentioning the designer, a habit that gets boring. Including every character’s educational résumé in brackets does not count towards building depth of character either. Many, Cecil in particular, lapse into cliché. There is enough sybaritic fun here to compensate, but EM Forster, I suspect, would be a little sniffy about this homage.
There are few authors who could pull off wealth porn in the current cultural moment—perhaps only one. Kwan, author of the insanely popular Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, again manages to enchant, though this is crazy and rich without the Asian locales, food, and other cultural details. While the locations of this book—the isle of Capri and the Hamptons—are certainly glamorous and full of rich people, they are no Singapore or Hong Kong. Kwan overcomes that with his irresistibly knowing humor and delightful central characters ... Kwan manages to take a few swipes against snobbery and racism. Nice ... This is the only way you’re getting to Capri this year. Why resist?
... intoxicating, breezy ... Kwan exploits the Forster frame for clever references—including Merchant and Ivory—and provides amusing footnotes. Kwan also relishes describing lavish meals and haute couture clothing, as well as Isabel’s decadent wedding and Cecil’s imaginative, over-the-top proposal. There are moments both catty and witty, but this delectable comedy of manners—the literary equivalent of white truffle and caviar pizza—is still pizza.