Saturday, December 30, 2017

Book Review: "Rich People Problems" by Kevin Kwan

Sometimes the best antidote for the craziness of the world is reading a wacky book. (It leaves my head clearer than drinking would, anyway.) Kevin Kwan's Rich People Problems, the third in his Crazy Rich Asians series, was just the ticket. Campy, a bit melodramatic, and utterly outrageous, Kwan's tales of three generations of Chinese families, set mostly in Singapore, provides a hysterical glimpse into how the ultra-rich live.

"Peel away the veneer of wealth and sophistication and you'll find extremely provincial, narrow-minded people. The problem is that they all have too much money, and it's come so easily to them that they think they're bloody geniuses and so they are always right."

Su Yi, the matriarch of the Young Family, is on her deathbed. She has a massive fortune, capped by Tyersall Park, a 64-acre estate on prime land in Singapore. While Asian tradition would usually expect Su Yi to leave the estate to her eldest son, Philip, many believed she'd bequeath it to his son, her favorite grandson, Nicholas. But Nicholas has been estranged from his grandmother after she voiced her disapproval of his marrying Rachel, whom she viewed as a common Chinese girl, so he hasn't been home to visit her in several years.

With disposition of Su Yi's estate in question, her entire family heads to Tyersall Park to hopefully get into her good graces (and perhaps move up a bit in her will) before she passes. Her eldest daughter, Felicity, knows that she'll probably get the short end of the stick because of her gender, but she has bigger fish to fry—her daughter Astrid is scandalizing the family with her relationship with her college boyfriend Charlie Wu. The family never thought that he was good enough for her, even though he is a self-made technology tycoon now, they don't want the two to get together now, even though both are on the verge of divorcing.

Another grandson, Eddie Chang, has also come to be with Su Yi, with his family in tow. Eddie is the most status-conscious of any of the family members—he always has to be sure people know he's wearing top-of-the-line designers, the most expensive and unique shoes (one pair needed to be dyed multiple times, so they took weeks to be ready for him), and the most luxurious of luxury timepieces. He is bound and determined to finally get the respect he believes he deserves, and if that means keeping others away from his grandmother until he wins her over to his side, so be it.

While Nicholas says he doesn't care about the estate and doesn't want to revisit the hurt his grandmother caused, he realizes he needs to say goodbye to her. (Plus, his high-strung mother insists about five times a day, when she's not interrogating him and Rachel about when they'll give her a grandchild.) His return home dredges up some resentment (especially with his cousin Eddie), but spending time with Su Yi and other family members reminds him of the importance of family, but reinforces how smart he and Rachel are to live in New York!

Meanwhile, former, umm, actress Kitty Pong has finally gained some status with her marriage to China's second-richest man, Jack Bing. But her quest for respectability keeps falling short, as she can't seem to reconcile her schizophrenic tastes in fashion and decor with what is expected of someone in her position. Even worse is the fact that she is convinced her stepdaughter, fashionista-turned-attorney's wife Colette, is trying to upstage her at every turn. No matter how hard she tries to stand out, Colette seems to be in her way, despite her sudden passion for the environment and no-frills fashion.

"Scientists talk about how we inherit health issues from our parents through our genes, but we also inherit this entire lineage of fear and pain—generations of it."

Rich People Problems is quite funny as it chronicles the over-the-top behavior of these people as they battle for an inheritance, social acceptance, love, and most of all, more money. Kwan imbues his book with painstaking details (even his footnotes are hysterical while also being informative) and a litany of designers, couture, and descriptions of food sure to make your stomach growl quite loudly.

Even the characters' names are amazing—my favorite is probably Scheherazade Shang, or Harvard Bing, the infant son of Kitty and Jack. The visuals Kwan's imagery conveys are eye-popping, and some of the dialogue is campier than any soap opera diva or villain's.

Like many, I've occasionally thought about what life might be like if I didn't have to worry about money—what I would do, where I would go, what I would spend it on. But the amount of money the characters in this book throw around (one character gets an eye lift for a rare fish to make it look younger) is unfathomable, which makes the book so much fun to read.

A true guilty pleasure.

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