Review: Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

On her very first morning on the jewel-like island of Capri, Lucie Churchill sets eyes on George Zao and she instantly can’t stand him. She can’t stand it when he gallantly offers to trade hotel rooms with her so that she can have the view of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she can’t stand that he knows more about Curzio Malaparte than she does, and she really can’t stand it when he kisses her in the darkness of the ancient ruins of a Roman villa and they are caught by her snobbish, disapproving cousin, Charlotte. “Your mother is Chinese so it’s no surprise you’d be attracted to someone like him,” Charlotte teases. Daughter of an American-born-Chinese mother and blue-blooded New York father, Lucie has always sublimated the Asian side of herself in favor of the white side, and she adamantly denies having feelings for George. But several years later, when George unexpectedly appears in East Hampton where Lucie is weekending with her new fiancé, Lucie finds herself drawn to George again. Soon, Lucy is spinning a web of deceit that involves her family, her fiancé, the co-op board of her Fifth Avenue apartment, and ultimately herself as she tries mightily to deny George entry into her world–and her heart. Moving between summer playgrounds of privilege, peppered with decadent food and extravagant fashion, Sex and Vanity is a truly modern love story, a daring homage to A Room with a View, and a brilliantly funny comedy of manners set between two cultures.


What is Sex and Vanity about?

On the surface, Sex and Vanity seems to be a winding soap opera about the love life of Lucie Churchill. But ultimately it’s about much more than that. Lucie was born into the influential Churchill family of New York on her father’s side–whereas her mother is a Chinese doctor. Her brother looks more on the white side of biracial and has always received preferential treatment from her father’s family as a result. For her entire life, Lucie has been strictly dressed, regulated, and forced into a mold she doesn’t fit out of fear that she will somehow embarrass the family by virtue of existing. But that mold comes crumbling away when a man from her brief visit to Capri arrives in New York shortly after her engagement…

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Set in contemporary Italy and New York City, this book is all about how the rich and famous of today are so convoluted when it comes to their love lives.

Tropes: Forbidden Love and Racism

One of the big themes in this book is that love isn’t always the motivation for a good marriage, and where love or strong feelings may actually be involved is a place best avoided. Additionally, there is a strong current of racism and privilege. Lucie is especially backhanded constantly by her Churchill family’s privilege. A combination of old school racism used to insult her, and internalized racism used to “protect” and “care” for her comes from everybody in her life.

Plot: Literally so Dramatic a Bollywood Movie was Made About It

The first half of the plot in Capri is genuinely so dramatic that a Bollywood style musical is written in the second half of the story depicting the events of Capri.

The Good

Kwan’s writing style continues to delight me. Just like in the Crazy Rich Asians series, Kwan includes little footnotes that range from translations to context to just general comments. I felt that Lucie was a well rounded character, and I appreciated the candor she has later in the book as she realizes how internalized racism has come close to ruining her happiness. I thought it was especially interesting to see the depictions of anti-Asian racism in this book compared to Crazy Rich Asians. In the series, every main character is Asian, most being Southeast Asian, and so racism is largely discussed but not seen directly. Sex and Vanity goes out of its way to depict how Lucie’s family pushes her away for looking too much like her mother, while embracing her brother for looking more white.

The Okay

I felt as though too much time was spent in Capri for too little reward. By focusing so much time in Capri, building up the tension by giving us a glimpse of Charlotte’s freakout before even showing the events that led to it, it was like whiplash to suddenly transition halfway through the story to New York. If there was going to be a prologue moment of Charlotte’s, I think it would have made more narrative sense to have it be her realization that she’d wronged Lucie in Capri–not the moment where everything goes nuts in Capri.

The Bad

Of course, as we’re not meant to want Cecil and Lucie to be together, it’s a little odd to put their relationship in this section. But it was just that uncomfortable to read. Cecil and Lucie should have a lot in common–both are biracial with a history of being discriminated against by their own sections of society, both have risen higher than expected, and both adore their families. The strange tension between Cecil and his mother–who deny their heritage as strictly as possible–and Lucie’s mother and brother–who have begun embracing more Chinese heritage–was in line with the overarching themes of the novel but never fully developed. As is pointed out, Cecil wants Lucie in his life as if she is a trophy. He wants her for vanity, for the beautiful face she has, and for the way she boosts his prestige. But he never really has a resolution regarding his own internalized racism, both towards himself and towards Lucie and her family.

Final Thoughts

While I felt this novel was structurally and narratively flawed, there’s a lot more to recommend than to dislike. Kwan’s unique writing style flourishes in this story and shows definite growth. The drama is high stakes, and the characters are all delightful caricatures–larger than life, and completely unaware of it. I enjoyed the narrative arc of Lucie breaking free of trying to conform to the standards of a family that will never fully accept her, moving on from old wounds that should be left to heal. I do think that the themes of sex and vanity weren’t revealed early enough to justify the way George name drops the book, but they were present in the second half of the novel. Regardless of its flaws, this book is a strong and satirical adventure into a pretentious escape.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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