I had been itching to read this book since it first debuted in 2013. However, the itch was manageable, until I heard about the movie adaptation and the cast that was selected. I LOVE Gemma Chan and Constance Wu and really like Michelle Yeoh. When their casting was confirmed, I decided I couldn’t wait anymore and quickly conspired to get my hands on this book!
Fair warning here — I think my reaction to the book is heavily biased by the actors casted for the movie adaptation. During my read, I kept on picturing the actors as the characters, which obviously made me like the characters far more that I might have otherwise. Secondly, I’ve talked before about how diversity is important to me, and this book is great on that front! Not only is it written by an Asian, Kevin Kwan, but it mostly features Asian characters in an international setting. On top of that, I think this movie might be one of the first to feature an entirely Asian cast in a Hollywood feature. It just feels so amazing to me and I’m so incredibly excited! As a result, I think my perception of the book is higher than it might be otherwise as well — because I want the book and movie to do well, so I see it in a good light. Of course, this is speculation on my part that I cannot confirm as I am obviously a subjective individual. Anyways, let’s move onto the review now.
Basically, Crazy Rich Asians is about two main characters: NYU’s Economics Professor Rachel Chu, and her NYU History Professor boyfriend, Nick Young. Rachel and Nick come across as any other young couple in love, and that’s what Rachel thinks. However, it turns out that Nick is actually filthy rich — his family is one of the richest in Singapore, tracing their riches and genealogy from several hundred years ago. Nick doesn’t tell Rachel any of this, as he was brought up to never talk about his family’s wealth. As a result, Rachel only finds out when Nick invites Rachel to spend the summer with him in Singapore, as he performs as the best man in his best friend, Colin Khoo’s, wedding. Colin Khoo, it turns out, also belongs among the Singaporean Elite and his wedding to model Araminta Lee (another part of the Elite), is actually the talk of the year in Singapore! Rachel only finds this out when she actually goes to Singapore and her Singaporean best friend from college, Peik Lin, reveals this to her.
On top of dealing with the crazily rich, Rachel also faces resistance and sees first-hand (although she doesn’t always understand them), the politics in Nick’s family and their mixed reaction to her. The Singaporean Elite, it turns out, are obsessed with genealogy, and Rachel, being the daughter of a poor single mother from Mainland China, doesn’t pass their test. However, the younger squad, Nick, his beautiful cousin Astrid, his other cousins, Colin and Araminta all like Rachel enough — it’s their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who are opposed to Rachel. On top of facing resistance from them, Rachel also faces bullying from Singaporean socialites who are jealous that she managed to land Nick.
The plot of the book is very simple. I’ve outlined most of it above — Rachel and Nick journey to Singapore, she meets his family, they are cold to her. Nick thinks its a success while Rachel is unsure. They both go to bachelor/bachelorette parties where they deal with their own issues — Rachel gets bullied really badly by the other bridesmaids as they are determined to break up her and Nick. Things continue to spiral, until eventually, Rachel and Nick break up because of his mother’s meddling. However, this is only the plot of Rachel and Nick’s story.
The book actually has around five main characters: Rachel, Nick, Nick’s beautiful cousin Astrid, Nick’s mother Eleanor, and Nick’s money obsessed cousin Eddie. Although all characters have scenes together, their separate stories also differ a bit. Astrid’s story deals with her marriage to middle-class army man turned businessman Michael Teo. Michael obviously doesn’t match up to Astrid’s family (her being super rich as well), but he works day and night and the two really love each other. At least that’s what Astrid thinks, until she starts suspecting that he’s having an affair. Things escalate to the point of Michael asking her for a divorce. However, it’s only through the intervention of Astrid’s ex-boyfriend, super-rich tech guru Charlie Wu, that their misunderstandings are cleared (there was no affair) and they reconcile. Sidenote — despite being super-rich himself, Astrid’s family also disapproved of her relationship with Charlie because his background wasn’t filled with riches — he was a new generation (?) rich person, thus pointing to their obsession with lineage. Eleanor’s POV actually provides a good example of this. Eleanor’s story mainly deals with her attempts at figuring out the relationship between her son and Rachel, ensuring that Nick stands to inherit most of his grandmother’s money, and trying to break up his relationship. Finally, Eddie’s story just deals with his anxiety at trying to impress the public with his riches and his anger at his family for being so cheap (in terms of spending their money).
However, it’s also interesting to note that the book doesn’t just deal with the POVs of the five main characters. Other characters POVs pop up often as well. For example, we got little insights in characters like Nick’s dad, Charlie Wu, Peik-Lin’s dad Wye-Mun, Eddie’s mother, etc. However, their insights typically relate to the five main characters, vs. their own problems. I actually thought this was quite smart of the author to do, because it makes the book more focused and easier to understand. Your attention remains cemented on thoughts of the main characters, vs. getting jumbled into the various lives of various characters.
On that note, let’s talk about some of the technical aspects of the book, namely the writing. Here’s the thing, the writing is nothing special. It doesn’t consist of fantastic pieces of prose or flowery writing. In fact, some of the dialogue felt clunky at times — meaning that you felt like the dialogue was specifically meant to be written vs. a character was actually saying it. However, what the book does have, is copious, and I mean copious amounts of description. Kevin Kwan has the tendency to go overboard when it comes to descriptions. He describes every single little detail. For example, when entering Peik-Lin’s house, he uses almost an entire page to describe the Versailles inspiring living room in their home. Additionally, this description isn’t just done for surrounding scenery, it’s done for everything; from the food the characters eat, to the clothes they wear, to the sights they see. To be honest, it does get a little annoying to read extensive descriptions because it sometimes feels never-ending. However, at the same time, I actually kind of enjoyed it. The sheer amount of imagery it conjures is ridiculous. Not to mention that the descriptions of the stuff itself are absurd in themselves. It really highlights just how crazy rich these people are.
Which brings me to another facet of the book – its humour. The book is incredibly funny. It’s not funny in the sense that it has many jokes or anything, but it’s funny in the characters it has. They all, aside from the some of the main ones, shamelessly gossip, backbite, and plot against others. It’s absurd, but also super funny! It’s downright ridiculous the way some of them act — but at the same time, it’s so entertaining to read! For example, during Araminta’s wedding day, as she was walking down the isle, all she could think of, was how Astrid couldn’t even be bothered to wear a new dress to her wedding. Of course my relaying of this scene completely downplays just how hilarious it was in the book. Plus, I also really enjoyed the culture showcased throughout the book. We get little hints as to what Singaporean culture consists of — apparently food is a hot topic, the word “lah” is used very often, and there is some casual racism involved towards Mainland Chinese people. We also get little scenes of old Chinese traditions. It’s fascinating to read! Additionally, the characters themselves are also interesting and cool — Astrid being one.
Yet, for all of its hilarious triumphs, the book does have its faults. For one thing, in terms of plot, there’s not a whole lot that really happens. It’s fairly predictable and things don’t always get resolved. Secondly, the reader doesn’t really build a deep connection with the characters. Their motivations aren’t always clear and they aren’t always very interesting. For example, I personally had a tough time with Nick sometimes, just because he could be so oblivious. Finally, the descriptions could get too much. At times, it felt like the descriptions were there to show off to the reader the characters wealth, vs. describe it to them (if that makes any sense).
My rating: read it to enjoy a fantastically hilarious book about the lives of the crazy rich asians (in Singapore)!