Kevin Kwan’s follow-up to Crazy Rich Asians falls victim to the classic pitfalls of sequels. The things that are similar to the first novel feel like just more of the same, while the new variations aren’t handled as well. And while Mr. Kwan’s writing has enough grace and wit to keep the enterprise marching along, the already light nature of his first novel threatens to evaporate into nothingness in his second.
Crazy Rich Asians was about the difficulties faced by Chinese-American Rachel Chu as she met her fiancee’s staggeringly wealthy family for the first time. There was real drama in whether or not Rachel would be accepted, or if she would even want to go through with her wedding once exposed to the vastly different lifestyle of one of Asia’s richest families. Adding to the drama was a rich panoply of memorable characters, from the vain Eddie Cheung and his misbehaving children to the luminous Astrid Leong and her impeccable style to the gate-crasher Kitty Pong and her ignorance of polite society and it’s conventions. The frothy whip on top that made the whole thing go down smoothly was the author’s command of his subject and his inimitable style: the dizzying array of ultra-exclusive brand names and insider knowledge of the habits of the rich and famous made Crazy Rich Asians unlike any novel I’ve ever read. It was like a Charles Dickens novel, if Dickens cared about the best place to get noodles in Hong Kong and had a complete knowledge of Singaporean slang.
There is still a large cast of characters in China Rich Girlfriend, but their storylines barely intersect if at all, and the litany of brand names and opulent menus becomes grating and wearisome this time around. There are essentially three main plots: Rachel’s struggle to connect with her newly-discovered birth father (a rich Chinese politician whose family is leery of the scandal a hidden daughter may cause), Astrid Leong’s crumbling marriage, and Kitty Pong’s attempt to break into the top ranks of Asian society as the newly-minted Katherine Tai. Kwan cuts between these stories but it’s really only the first that propels the narrative. The other two seem superfluous at best, dragging at worst. The lack of connection makes the reader wonder at their inclusion. At times China Rich Girlfriend feels like the author just hanging out with characters he’s unwilling to let go.
Though China Rich Girlfriend features some well-rounded and fun characters, it’s interwoven structure and reliance on name-dropping hamper the narrative and dampen the reader’s enthusiasm. A mystery dropped in late in the story does very little to bring about a suspenseful conclusion, and the ending is little more than a shrug.