Sex and Vanity: A Novel

Sex and Vanity: A Novel

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Overview

A GOOD MORNING AMERICA Book Club Pick! 

"Kevin Kwan's new book is his most decadent yet." —Entertainment Weekly

The iconic author of the bestselling phenomenon Crazy Rich Asians returns with the glittering tale of a young woman who finds herself torn between two men: the WASPY fiancé of her family's dreams and George Zao, the man she is desperately trying to avoid falling in love with.


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 a view of the Tyrrhenian Sea, she can't stand that he knows more about Casa 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. The daughter of an American-born Chinese mother and a 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, Lucie is spinning a web of deceit that involves her family, her fiancé, the co-op board of her Fifth Avenue apartment building, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593340912
Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/30/2020
Sales rank: 219,516
Product dimensions: 5.07(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

KEVIN KWAN is the author of the international bestsellers Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems. Crazy Rich Asians was a #1 New York Times bestseller, a major motion picture, and has been translated into more than thirty languages. He lives in Los Angeles and is trying to eat less pasta.

Read an Excerpt

VII

Arco Naturale
Capri, Italy


George found Lucie sitting on a stone bench, staring out at the Arco Naturale, a gigantic natural limestone arch that rose out of the mountainside 650 feet above the sea.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Lucie fixed her eyes out on the view, purposely not looking at him. She knew there were bloodstains on his shirt, and she couldn’t bear to see them.  “How did you know I was here?”

“I didn’t. After leaving the piazzetta, I just felt like coming here.” Lucie could feel her jaw tighten. Why was he always showing up where she least wanted him to be? She got up from the bench and leaned against the green iron fence that faced the sea, hoping he would get the message.

George inhaled, as if about to say something.

“Please . . .  don’t speak! Please don’t tell me what happened to that man. I don’t want to know,” Lucie blurted in a choked voice.


George walked up to the fence and stood near her. Just beyond the fence, the arch towered over them, rising so unexpectedly and improbably out of the cliff it looked like it could have been placed there by aliens. Through the arch was a perfect view of the sea hundreds of feet below, the water glowing in lustrous shades of aqua-marine.

They took in the otherworldly view in silence, and after a while, George spoke. “The first time I came here, when I was about twelve, I was so blown away by the sight of this arch that I thought it had to be a vortex. Like maybe some sort of gateway to a parallel universe. I wanted to leap through the arch and be transported somewhere else in time.”

"I wouldn’t mind being somewhere else in time right about now,” Lucie said numbly.

“Follow me.” George moved suddenly, and Lucie thought for a second that he was actually going to hop over the fence. Instead, he began heading toward the trail that led down the mountainside. She debated whether she wanted to follow him and then thought, What the hell.

Lucie walked a few paces behind George as they headed along a steep paved trail and then down a long set of steps that wound along the thickly forested part of the island. 

“Pablo Neruda would hike this trail every day when he lived on the island,” George said.

Lucie said nothing, but she was surprised by this bit of trivia coming from George. He didn’t seem like the type to read poetry. At the bottom of the steps, they rounded a corner and she found herself standing at the mouth of a cavern. She realized with an unexpected jolt that they were at the Grotta di Matermania. It was one of the places she had put on her must- see list— a natural cavern that was one of the most ancient archaeological treasures of the island. 

“You wanted to go somewhere back in time, so here we are,” George said.

Lucie wandered into the cavern, where walls and stairways had been carved out of the limestone to create different levels and spaces within. This was once a nymphaeum for the ancient Romans, she thought, placing her hand against the cavern walls, strangely warm to the touch, and wondering what mystical rituals these ruins must have witnessed through the ages. She could feel a strange energy pulsating throughout the cave, the same energy she felt when she had visited other ancient sites like Stonehenge and the Mayan tem-ples at Tulum.

At the back of the cavern rose a natural formation that resembled an altar, no doubt the focal point of ceremonies when the cavern was itself a temple. Lucie climbed up to stand in front of the altar and closed her eyes. She wasn’t religious by any means— her mother’s family was Buddhist and her father’s was nominally Episcopalian— but something compelled her to say a silent prayer for the man in the piazzetta.

When she opened her eyes, George was nowhere in sight. She wandered out of the cavern, but he wasn’t there either. Should she head back up the steps, or keep going down the trail? She decided to explore a little further, feeling a bit annoyed with herself as she wandered along a path that seemed to be taking her farther and farther down the hill. Where would this lead to? Why in the world was she even looking for George? Hadn’t she told him she wanted to be alone? There was something about George— something in the way he spoke, his mannerisms, and his whole vibe— that she found so unsettling, and yet here she was thinking about him again.

It dawned on her that she had never really known an Asian guy before. Asian women, like her mother, Isabel, and so many of her classmates, had naturally always been part of her life, and at Brear-ley there had even been three other half- Asian girls in her year. But somehow she had lived her whole life hardly ever interacting with an Asian boy. Freddie didn’t count at all— in striking contrast to her, he took after their father in appearance and behaved like the quint-essential WASP, right down to his smelly old Sperrys. Strangers meeting them never thought they were related, and someone even mistook Freddie for her boyfriend once. She had met some of her male Chinese cousins from Seattle and Hong Kong when she was younger, but they barely made an impression. Of course, it didn’t help that she had gone to an all-girls school like Brearley and lived her whole life on the Upper East Side. Sure, there were a few Asians here and there at the private schools around her neighborhood, but most of the Asian boys in the city went to Stuyvesant,* or so she heard. Plus, the guys she had known were all Asian Americans, and George was nothing like them. He was a Chinese boy from Hong Kong who had spent a few years in Australia. So what exactly did that make him? He didn’t seem Australian, despite his quasi-Aussie accent. He was much more Chinese in his ways. He sounded strange, he moved strange, he dressed strange. He probably smelled  strange too.

Just when she decided to turn around and retrace her steps to the Arco Naturale, Lucie suddenly caught sight of something through the trees. Down the hill was the most spectacular house perched on top of a little peninsula that jutted out into the sea. The red house was rectangular in shape, but its entire back facade comprised reverse pyramidal steps leading from the ground all the way up to the roof, which was a huge flat patio. It was the coolest house Lucie had ever laid eyes on, and, feeling compelled to get a closer look, she kept on the pathway until she came to a set of steps leading to the house. There was no gate, but painted on the top step was the word PRIVATO.

“Private property,” a voice behind her said, startling her. She turned to see George standing on the pathway just above her.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that! Where did you go?”

“I thought you needed some alone time, so I went exploring a bit further.”

“This house is quite incredible.”

“It’s Casa Malaparte, one of the greatest houses ever built. Wanna take a closer look?”

“You just said it was private property.”

“I don’t think there’s any harm walking a bit farther to get a better look.” George began walking down the steps, and Lucie followed a bit skeptically. When they reached the house, a man suddenly popped his head out a window and called down to them.

“’Sera, Giorgio! Come va?”

“Va bene, Niccolò. Possiamo dare un’occhiata?” George replied
.
“Certo!”

Lucie looked at George in surprise. “Wait a minute, you speak Italian? You know him?"

“I do. He’s the caretaker. I was here yesterday looking around.”

“Why?”

“Why not? I’m thinking of doing a project inspired by the house.”

“Project?”

“I study sustainable environmental design at UC Berkeley.”

"Oh,” Lucie said. She was beginning to see him in a whole new light. 

They climbed up the steps to the flat white roof, which was like a viewing deck for the most glorious panoramic views of the Gulf of Sorrento. Lucie walked as close to the edge of the roof as she dared to and looked out, taking a deep breath. The sun was beginning to set, making the calm sea shimmer in the most seductive shades of gold. She was feeling so much lighter all of a sudden, and she felt almost guilty about it.

George was sitting on the top step of the roof, gazing up at the island and the seagulls that circled endlessly around the jagged peaks. Lucie sat down next to him, finally feeling like she had to say something.

“I’m so ashamed,” she began. “I don’t know why I ran away.”

“You don’t need to explain.”

Lucie sighed deeply. “I took a CPR class back in high school. I even got an A, believe it or not. But today . . .  I dunno . . .  I could’ve done something. I should’ve done something! I was having the love-liest time just sitting in that café, and then suddenly out of nowhere this terrible thing happened. I just . . .  froze. And then I couldn’t face it, and my body just took over.”

“It was a traumatic sight. I wanted to run too. I wanted so much not to be there, but no one was doing anything.”

“I don’t know how I’m ever going to walk through the piazzetta again.

”“You left your shopping bag at the café.”

“I know. I was going to head back there eventually and get it. I also skipped out on my bill.”

“I tried to pay for you, but the waiters wouldn’t let me. They waived it.”

“They did?”

“I did get your bag for you. But . . .” George paused, giving her a sheepish look. “I’m sorry, I threw the bag away.”

“What? Why did you do that?”

George turned away from her. “I didn’t want you to have to see it. It was all splattered with blood, even inside. There was blood on the sandals.”

Lucie said nothing for a moment. She thought of how trivial those sandals had suddenly become to her. In the course of one afternoon, everything had changed. In the blink of an eye, someone had died. Someone’s father, someone’s husband, someone’s friend. People would be shocked and grieving. She didn’t even know the old man, and she was grieving for him. If only she had done something, if only she had started giving him CPR sooner, he might have survived. How was she going to sit through the dinner tonight at the Michelin-starred restaurant that everyone else was so excited about? How would she be able to enjoy Isabel’s wedding? How could she begin to enjoy anything ever again?

George peered into her eyes with that same intensity that used to freak her out, but she somehow found it soothing now. It was as if he could read every single thing going through her mind.

“Can I tell you a story, if I promise it has a happy ending?” he asked.

“Sure, I guess.” She stood up, and they began walking along the roof toward the water.

“Once upon a time, there was a girl who sat in a café on the square in Capri, enjoying an afternoon drink . . .” Lucie froze in alarm. She was about to cut George off, when he said, “I know you didn’t want me to say anything, but I think you need to know the old man in the piazzetta is okay. We managed to revive him.”

Lucie stared at George wide- eyed as he went on with his story.

“While I was doing CPR on him, the doctor arrived. He was this young guy in board shorts carrying a black leather case, and he had a defibrillator inside. He gave the man a shock with the machine, and he started to breathe again.”

Lucie didn’t know what was happening to her. She began hyperventilating uncontrollably, and then her entire body started to heave with sobs. She leaned on George, weeping into his shoulder in relief.

George put his arm around her and continued to speak in a soft, steady voice: “The old man was British, and his wife arrived at the piazzetta right as we revived him. She had been down the street shop-ping at Ferragamo. By the time I left, he was sitting up in a chair, getting treated by the doctor while his wife scolded him for running off . . .”

Reading Group Guide

SEX AND VANITY
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION



1. Charlotte interprets Rosemary Zao’s offer of her hotel rooms as showing off her wealth, but Lucie has a different take on it as a reflection of Chinese culture and attitudes toward wealth and generosity. Who do you think is right?

2. What did you think of Lucie’s scrutiny of George’s social media profiles? Would you have done the same thing?

3. Discuss Lucie’s attitude toward her mixed-race ethnicity and how it informs her ill-fated engagement to Cecil.

4. Speaking of Lucie and Cecil’s engagement, what did you think of his dramatic proposal? Creative or too over the top?

5. What did you think of Lucie’s grandmother referring to Lucie as her “precious China doll”? Later in the novel Charlotte says “she’s not a racist, just a snob.” Do you agree?

6. Discuss the connection between Lucie denying herself the opportunity to embrace her own talent as an artist and her efforts to resist her attraction to George.

7. Lucie’s cousin Charlotte reveals her true self in surprising ways as the novel unfolds. What were your first impressions of her, and how did they change?

8. Discuss the symmetry and significance of uber-WASP Cornelia Guest and Rosemary Zao as the two women who help Lucie to finally embrace her truth.

9. Casting call: who would play Lucie, George, and Cecil in the movie?

10. The author creates memorable characters in all of his novels. Who are your favorite characters in this novel and why?

11. Discuss the ending of the novel. Did you find it satisfying or did you want to see Lucie and George tie the knot?

12. Sex and Vanity was written as an homage to A Room with a View. If you’re familiar with E.M. Forster’s classic novel, did this connection come to mind? And if you haven’t read A Room with a View, are you inspired to read it now?

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