A novel on the upper-crust and more-than-Crazy-Rich Asians and an “ethnography” of the high-net-worth women of New York’s Upper East Side…?

I had already drawn lessons from the former, and the two books are almost too similar to qualify as cross-reading. In fact, Amazon shows those books as “frequently bought together”…

Cross-Reading 3: Kwan and Martin

The parallels, however, are too great to resist them (much as cross-reading is all the more interesting when the lessons are more hidden).

China Rich Girlfriend

On the one hand, there is the story that does not purport to be anything more than a novel, if one that is inspired by real shenanigans of a certain social class.

China Rich Girlfriend follows up on Crazy Rich Asians and presents something of an insight into the lives of a social upper crust that has come under an extremely odd kind of pressure:

They used to be the new nobility, people who had a high social standing thanks to their family history as well as due to riches inherited and expanded. Thus, certain behaviors were passed on from generation to generation – and outsiders, especially from a different ethnic, cultural, and social background, not from a similarly “good” family, would be seen askance.

That was the main driver of Crazy Rich Asians.

Now, however, as one started to see there, but becomes something of a focus in China Rich Girlfriend, not only have more liberal lifestyles hit their traditions, but also is there yet another group of rich: “China Rich” who have made it big in (mainland) China’s turn towards capitalism and whose fortunes surpass those of many a traditionally ‘top’ family – but whose social background is far, if not as far as possible, as one could be from the top social strata (at least, as traditions of overseas Chinese rich would define them).

Primates of Park Avenue

On the other hand, there is the work that plays at being life writing in the spirit of the “literary turn” in cultural anthropology.

That is, what is ostensibly an ethnography became less about the “objects” of the ethnographer’s study than about the ethnographer and his or her life.

And so, Wednesday Martin is in a similar position, socially, to the new China Rich. Not that she were super-rich, as she is keen to remind the reader (she only has a closet for her handbags, not a dedicated room…), but she and especially her husband aren’t doing badly, either.

In fact, they were doing well enough to have moved into the Upper East Side of New York – and like the China Rich who suddenly enter the stage of the world, and especially the Asian, rich and upper-crust, so she enters the difficult circumstances of a new troop (troupe, one may think) of primates.

For the new, and especially female, wannabe of such a grouping, things are difficult.

Social ostracism of the established females is likely; different rules apply but have to be discovered before one can ever fit in – and does one even, really, want to fit in?

Martin gleefully and thoughtfully, if with a dose of a sometimes aggravating ‘aware ignorance’ about her standing and privilege, aims to dissect these social patterns.

There is something to her writing where the comparisons with ethnographic and anthropological research she draws feel as much justified in their parallels between hunter-gatherer tribes, non-human primate troops, and the women she came to be with, as it feels like posturing by which she tries to show off her high education.

Her observations in the whole book work considerably better, and the whole tenor of the book seems more thoughtful, than the article for the New York Times that was published about it had made it seem.

Human, After All

This works all the better as the book has an arc, not just towards the adaptation to and acceptance of the new social group, but also to a climax in her life history and the insight into social life gained from the, well, normal tragedy, that makes it ultimately easier to connect with her.

Still, whether one learns from or just gets annoyed by themes like the chapter-long discussion of the symbolic (and thereby, quite practical) value of a Birkin bag will very much depend on the reader* – but then, that is just another parallel between the novel China Rich Girlfriend with its high-net-worth but not always highly functional people, who can similarly amuse or aggravate, as you read them.

(*Having been writing about the “enclothed life,” i.e. what clothing means, between the social statement of fashion and the performance value that – also – makes something good gear for a man, I found it fascinating to learn more about the social and marketing mechanisms surrounding the Birkin bags. Having someone “need” such a bag while struggling just to make ends meet oneself is still aggravating…)

Amuse Bouche, uh, Brain

I highly recommend reading both books (and starting with Crazy Rich Asians, if you haven’t done that already, before getting to China Rich Girlfriend and Primates of Park Avenue).

They are amusing, and where Kevin Kwan’s novels may make you wonder if the old or new rich could really possibly be like that, Martin’s “ethnography” lets you see, and understand, quite a bit more of where such behaviors come from, be that among Asian rich or those of Park Avenue.

By the time you get to the shunning of the newly rich woman in Manhattan who had the gall to interrupt the award ceremony for a noted philanthropist with her own, higher, donation, you will know exactly why the two (or three) books make for such an interesting read-along: The same scene happens in China Rich Girlfriend.

There, it’s something for the laugh about the craziness of it all; in Park Avenue, strange as the combination of observation and anthropological-study background can read (though it should fit), the reader not only enjoys the craziness but also learns a bit more of the social/psychological background at work.

Un-modern as armchair anthropology has become, you probably won’t get a more entertaining chance for people-watching among the rich… and in the end, if you look at these works closely enough, you may be shocked to find that Kevin Kwan’s works, obviously novels though they may be, actually say rather more about the newest of new rich. And old rich, as well.