It’s World Book Day today so I thought I’d share my review of a book I’d recently re-read – Crazy Rich Asians. Now of course a film was released in 2018 which was an unexpected global blockbuster success, but the book was first published in 2013. The film, while extremely popular, caused controversy with its almost blanket casting of “Asian” actors in mostly Singaporean-Chinese roles. However, it did stick relatively close to the source material in terms of plot and characters. I’ll be sharing my review with you mostly as if reading the book before watching the film as I did many years ago before it came out, but I will say this – the film is actually better.
The story is told from the perspective of several characters – Rachel Chu and her boyfriend Nick Young, his mother Eleanor and cousins Astrid and Edison – and revolves around the events leading up to Nick’s best friend Colin Khoo’s wedding in Singapore. But aside from the trials and tribulations of the upcoming wedding everyone is talking about and excited for, each character has their own lives that intertwine with others that take precedent in their individual chapters. Rachel is worried about how she is fitting in with everyone else while constantly being openly and sneakily intimidated by others, Nick is fretting about proposing to Rachel while everyone else believes she isn’t right for him, Eleanor has a secret vendetta against Rachel while harbouring her own similar experience of not being liked, Astrid has her suspected cheating husband to deal with, and Edison is caught up in the obsession to portray a perfect life and flaunt his wealth, while some of his family members are extremely humble in comparison.
And along the way we meet a wide array of other characters through them. Friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, exes, and of course, enemies – everybody knows everybody who’s anybody in the small, overtly wealthy island of Singapore. And if you’re not crazy rich, you’re a wannabe or a nobody. But this is what sets the novel back and makes it confusing. There are just far too many supporting and minor characters that, especially if you’re reading too quick or not following properly, you think “who the hell is this?” when their name pops up without an explanation because they have more than likely already been introduced. And many when they are, are simply passing characters who are mentioned or do not say much at all. Take Colin’s fashion icon fiancé Araminta, for example, who throws a bachelorette party on a private island of all places, and invites about 20 girls to it, including Rachel. The subplot in this chapter is a pivotal moment in the story so if you can put aside the gaggle of girls throwing out snarky one liners and focus on Rachel’s perspective as she also tries to ignore them, you can concentrate a lot more easily.
What is also hard to swallow is the constant fortune flaunting that almost everybody does. Yes, it’s called Crazy Rich Asians but just as Rachel is overwhelmed by the amount of showing off she’s subjected to and half-shocked, half-exasperated by, so are we as readers. There’s A-List celebrity and luxury brand name-dropping on nearly every page, and intricate descriptions of lavish jewellery, haute couture outfits, ornaments and décor, and the mighty mansions most of them live in. The majority of characters are unfortunately instantly unlikeable; vapid and self-obsessed, or obsessed with money, keeping or saving face, controlling their family members, or the personal lives of others.
However, apart from these unattractive qualities, Crazy Rich Asians opens our eyes to the reality of Singapore’s elite class. Even many Singaporeans say people like them really do exist but very few actually know them; these practically royal families only mix with each other. If you read it as if it’s a novel version of Netflix’s reality show Singapore Social (basically a “Real Housewives of” type series), it’s an entertaining story where under the many layers of expensive clothing and veils of fake smiles and perfectly preened looks, lies a handful of characters with hidden hearts and depth to their backstory that help you understand why they are like they are.
In terms of Asian representation, it’s a fresh twist on East meets West but unflatteringly shines a light on how some Asians go against the stereotype of being humble, modest and respectful. Aside from the immense wealth, most readers of Chinese descent can identify with the complexities of the family ties presented in Crazy Rich Asians, making it on some level, actually quite relatable, but at the same time it highlights the cliché that money can’t always buy happiness or class.
Crazy Rich Asians allows the reader a form of escapism to imagine what life would be like if they were “crazy rich”, taking them on an extravagant ride of access to limitless money, owning or in line to inherit a multimillion dollar enterprise, and having the pick of the crop when it comes to babes or bachelors – one that makes the reader on hindsight take back their childhood wish of coming from a rich family. It also takes us on an emotional ride as we follow Rachel and Nick’s relationship that’s dogged by their cultural differences, family interference and unspoken secrets. This heart of the novel almost evens out the busyness of the rest of it and the little subplots and fiascos other characters are trying to deal with but for me it wasn’t enough to leave me overly impressed.