Jane Austen, or maybe Edith Wharton, goes to Singapore, turning in this lively, entertaining novel of manners.
You’ve got to like any novel set in Asia that includes, among many splendid one-liners, this amah’s admonition: “Don’t you know there are children starving in America?” Of varying ethnicities but resolutely members of the 1 percent or aspiring, one way or another, to be so, Kwan’s characters are urban sophisticates par excellence, many of them familiar with the poshest districts of London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong. Many of them are also adrift, with soulless consumerism replacing society: It’s Less Than Zero without all the coke. When socialite Astrid, for instance, is in a mood, as she so often is, she goes shopping in boutiques haunted by “the wives of Persian Gulf sheikhs, Malay sultans, and the Indonesian Chinese oligarchs.” Not half-bad company, but then Astrid moves in a rarefied circle around the richest of the rich. At its center is 32-year-old Nicholas Young, whose ABC girlfriend—American-born Chinese, that is—Rachel Chu, has come to Singapore to meet the family. To Nick’s credit, she is taken aback by just how phenomenally wealthy they are. “It’s like any big family,” Nick assures her. “I have loudmouth uncles, eccentric aunts, obnoxious cousins, the whole nine yards.” Well, and then some. Rachel discovers that the position of being Nick’s intended isn’t an easy one—not only are there other would-be plutocrats gunning for the spot, but the family also doesn’t make things easy, either. A diverse set of characters and a light, unstrained touch move Kwan’s story along. Yet, even though one feels for Rachel, there’s a point—right about at the spot where one of her new girlfriends is showing off the yoga studio inside daddy’s new jet—that one gets the feeling that Ho Chi Minh might have had a point after all.
An elegant comedy and an auspicious debut.