When Kevin Kwan began writing “Sex and Vanity” — his first book since the blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy wrapped up in 2017 with “Rich People Problems” — he envisioned creating the ultimate 2020 beach read.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown orders across the country changed that vision a bit. “The intention was that we would all be reading this by a beach or by the swimming pool — and maybe some people can still do that,” Kwan told NBC News. “I like all my books to be escapes into different worlds and to bring joy and laughter. I’m sure we could use a little bit of that right now given the circumstances.”
Set to be released on June 30, “Sex and Vanity” is Kwan’s frothy and satirical homage to E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel “A Room View a View,” which is centered on a young woman who finds herself stifled by the restrictions of Edwardian society. Kwan’s version of the tale introduces the world to Lucie Tang Churchill, a young, mixed-race Asian American woman from the kind of upper-class Northeastern family that prides itself on being descendants of the first Europeans who came to the United States on the Mayflower.
Lucie finds her life thrown into turmoil when George Zao — a man she met years ago at a glitzy wedding in Capri — unexpectedly re-enters her orbit. She then has to choose between her respectable and upper-crust fiancé Cecil or George, the “brooding weirdo” she found herself intrigued by from the moment they met.
We had the chance to talk to Kwan about his new novel, what it is like navigating two very different cultures and why he loves “A Room With a View.”
NBC Asian America: “Sex and Vanity” is very different in style and tone from the “Crazy Rich Asians” series. What appealed to you about creating a modern day retelling of “A Room With A View”?
Kwan: When I was offered the chance to write this book [my publisher] asked me, ‘What would you like to do next, now that you have written three international best sellers? You have a clean slate, do you want to write ‘Crazy Rich Asians IV’?’ I said, ‘I want to do something totally different with different characters and different worlds.’
It was my intention to really write a light fun summer novel, and I had a really fun time writing it. I always knew that “A Room With aView” was a comic masterpiece and in a way I wanted to capture that spirit, but also make it my own.
As her name suggests, Lucie Tang Churchill is a mixed-race Asian American woman. Her father’s family is very old money and her mom is a Chinese immigrant. Why did you want Lucie to be a mixed race character?
Kwan: I felt that it was very relevant to the time and is very relevant to what is happening in America now. So many friends and family members are "hapa" [partially of Asian or Pacific Islander descent] and they have so many different challenges depending on who their family is and what kind of values their parents instilled in them.
In Lucie’s life, there was tragedy — her father died when she was very young. I don’t want to give away too much, but you can see how that plays into her own family dynamic. She is in a very peculiar situation because she is being pulled between these two very different families.
When we first meet Lucie she is 19 years old and heading to Capri with her older cousin for the very fancy wedding of her former babysitter, Isabel, in Capri. It’s there that she meets Isabel’s Chinese Australian cousin George Zao, whom she finds both weird and intriguing. They hook up, leaving Lucie’s cousin Charlotte terrified that her reputation is ruined. This is obviously a plot point out of the original 1908 novel, but were you also thinking of how this mentality still exists in many families — Asian American or not — today?
Kwan: Absolutely, and that’s why Lucie comes from this very particular background. Her family, the Churchills, are very much like the Youngs of Singapore [from “Crazy Rich Asians”]. They are in this bubble of privilege that is very different from the rest of America, so she has to play by the rules of this very old guard society.
For most Americans, very few people care about breeding or what your family background is. That is just so archaic. But Lucie’s family is this old WASPy family where all of these rules still matter.
It was a nice twist that it was the white side of her family was like this, since the stereotype is that Asian Americans are very focused on family reputation.
Kwan: I wanted to flip that cliché on its head. Her mom’s side of the family — the Chinese American side — couldn't care less about those traditions. They are forging new paths in this country and they are in many ways so much more modern and forward-thinking than the Churchills. I really wanted to play with that paradox and look at that complete struggle between the two paths she could choose.
Lucie is also aware that there is such a thing as being ‘too Asian’ in her world and changes little parts of herself because of that. Do you find yourself navigating those lines in your own life?
Kwan: Absolutely. I think everyone has these experiences growing up here as immigrants from Asia. I felt like I always walked this tightrope in terms of how I had to present myself in order to survive and not be racially stereotyped.
That also comes up when George’s mother wants to buy an apartment in a ritzy co-op building in Manhattan. Even though she is extremely wealthy, she says the co-op board is unlikely to approve her because another Chinese family already lives there.
Kwan: I used satire as a way to look at these issues in a way that is very honest and very kind of in your face, but yet not. It’s a way to tell these stories in a way that is more palatable rather than in the form of just an angry book. But there are lessons to be learned through comedy.
We also definitely wanted to talk to you about the character of George Gao, who is also very unconventional. He’s an introverted surfer who is very connected to his feelings. What did you enjoy about creating this character?
Kwan: (Laughs) I think I was thinking, "How do you create the new sexy Asian guy? What would make him desirable to girls today?" He really marches to his own drum. He’s a surfer and an environmental crusader with a design background because he’s an architect.
It was really fun because he’s still really Asian from Hong Kong, but he’s also has this Aussie swagger because he went to prep school there. I’ve always loved creating these characters that are multiplied and interestingly idiosyncratic.
Finally, this book starts off at the extremely luxurious wedding in Capri and then heads to the Hamptons and some of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods, all places that look great on film. Could you see “Sex and Vanity” becoming a movie one day?
Kwan: Absolutely! 100 percent. Bring it on, Hollywood. But we’ll see.