Over the weekend, I listened to Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Here's some quick thoughts:
Why is this a blockbuster?
I haven't seen the movie, but I understand why it would have been a sensation. The best part of Kwan's novel is the rich details. He clearly did his homework in all the many locales, describing everything from simple meals, lavish feasts, neighborhoods, hotels, coffee shops, etc, in exquisite detail that was a joy to listen to. Of course, there was plenty of description of clothes and furniture and art. It was clear these people were rich, and Kwan did an excellent job not just telling us, but showing us all of this.
The other best part of the novel was the characters. Though there were a LOT of them, they all felt larger than life, real, and on the page. No matter who was on stage, they commanded my attention. And it didn't matter if they were loud characters, even the quiet and meek ones were interesting and fleshed out. This was fun.
But, seriously, like why is this a blockbuster?
The question, then, is: Are those excellent details enough to carry the novel. Apparently, because they made it a movie, but as the novel wrapped up, I found myself a little underwhelmed by the plot.
Or rather, I should say, I don't think there was a plot. There was a setting, and there were really interesting characters in that setting, but no real plot, especially in regards to Rachel and Nick. Rachel does nothing the entire novel. In many ways, this is realistic: she is a guest at a stranger's wedding and is just sort of enjoying the ride. I felt the same way in so many settings, just an observer. But as she is the main character and the main cause of so many other people's furor, it seems that she should have been given some opportunities to do something. Even in the scene at the bachelorette party, where the catty girls leave a fish in her room, she specifically chooses to do nothing.
The last bit of the novel, where Rachel learns that her mother has been lying to her, might constitute a plot. But this is Nick's mother's plot, not Rachel's. Rachel did something (she almost goes to China,) but even that is thwarted and her mother comes to Singapore and explains everything. She almost breaks up with Nick, telling him a long list of things that she is uncomfortable with within their relationship. And though it is clear they're getting together again at the end, these concerns aren't addressed again, even though Alexis and Michael's counterstory (and Rachel's mother's) make it very clear this will be an issue. It was all very disappointing. I felt that Rachel had a chance to actually change, that Nick had an opportunity to change, but instead, we see that they are just both the same at the end of the novel: She is smart and knows when not to react, she easily forgives, and she has a hot boyfriend. He is charitable and kind and still hot (but skinnier!). All these things clearly make them a good match, but we knew that at the beginning of the novel. What have they learned? What have they decided? How are they different for this ordeal? Rushing to a happy ending felt sloppy and unrealistic.
The most interesting part of the whole novel was Alexis's story with her husband Michael, but even she doesn't actually get full resolution and what resolution she does get comes from her ex stepping in. He sets her up to succeed without her making any choices herself. She, who was always shown to be the independent, free-spirited one, relies on some man that shows up at the end to whisk her away and solve her problems. It's sweet and makes us like her ex a lot, but still, that's not a plot. That's dues ex machina.
So, lesson learned: You can write a blockbuster novel with no plot and shallow character progression. You just need a setting and characters that are sexy and unique.