Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pride, prejudice... and a lotta money

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'IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Not the opening words of Crazy Rich Asians, the debut novel by Singapore-born American writer Kevin Kwan, but they might as well be.

Kwan is a modern-day Jane Austen, never mind gender or ethnicity, because he is writing about the same human pride and prejudices that consumed Austen 200 years ago.

In this comedy of manners about star-crossed lovers fighting against class distinctions and family pressures, the comparison between the Bennets, Bingleys and Darcys of 18th-century England and the Chus, Leongs and Youngs of 21st-century Singapore is most appropriate.

Nick Young, sole heir to an unfathomable family fortune, now living and working as a university professor in New York City, invites his American girlfriend, Rachel Chu, to his best friend's wedding in Singapore.

To Nick, this is not such a big deal. But to every wealthy, marriageable Singaporean girl -- and her mother -- this constitutes an epic crisis. Singapore's wealthiest bachelor must not be allowed to marry a gold-digging outsider.

Spying on the couple in a restaurant, a curious socialite sends her sister a phone photo. Frantic texting ensues: "THAT'S NICK YOUNG! ... Who's the girl he's with?"

In this Kwan comes across as an Asian Tom Wolfe. "And so this exotic strain of gossip spread rapidly through the Levantine networks of the Asian jet set," he writes, "and within a few hours, almost everyone in this exclusive circle knew that Nicholas Young was bringing a girl home to Singapore."

Nick never talks about his family, but Rachel's college friend (of a new-money family from Singapore) discovers that Nick's friend Colin Khoo's wedding isn't just any wedding: "The Khoos are crazy rich," she reveals.

Being crazy rich involves rules: children of old money cannot marry new money, progeny of the lower classes, or anyone whose families came from mainland China.

Discovering this last detail about Rachel, Nick's mother phones her husband, sounding like Austen's Mrs. Bennet: "She was born in mainland China and went to America when she was six months old."

The husband responds: "Doesn't everybody's family ultimately originate from mainland China? Where would you rather her be from? Iceland?"

Though maintaining his comic tone, Kwan doesn't hide the cruelty to which those who don't fit in are subjected: Nick's female relatives give Rachel utter mean-girl treatment, hoping she will abandon their coveted prize.

The story unfolds in chapters told from the rotating points of view of the main characters, giving the effect of multiple camera angles. It won't be a surprise if television or film rights get snapped up -- but Dallas or Downton Abbey it is not.

The closest similarity to those dramas lies in ridiculously rich people fighting among themselves and being snooty to the lower orders. Too light-hearted and piquant to be fairly compared to Amy Tan's heart-rending epic The Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians is more like Canadian writer Terry Woo's first novel, Banana Boys, which explores the racism and family pressures involved in growing up Asian here.

Kwan easily transports captive readers from Sex and the City New York and to sensual Singapore, lush with flowers, savoury with food, luxurious with designer labels and glittering jewels.

But beneath all this is the cruel menace of old money and unyielding traditional family mandates that aim to prevent the characters from living life according to their own desires.

Winnipegger Christine Mazur recently returned from Manila -- again -- with more adventures from the Indie Pinoy music scene to add to her blog, Have Fiddle Will Travel.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A1

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