Fiction Friday | 'Sex and Vanity' by Kevin Kwan
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.
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.
The daughter of an American-born Chinese mother and a blue-blooded New York father, Lucie has always sublimated the Asian side of herself, 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, she finds herself drawn to him again. Soon, Lucie is spinning a web of deceit that involves her family, her fiancé and ultimately herself, as she tries 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.
Enjoy the following extract, courtesy of Penguin Random House:
From: Isabel Chiu
Subject: la dolce vita
I’m sooooo happy you’re coming to my wedding in Capri! Do you know, apart from my family, you’re the person I’ve known the longest that will be there? I can hardly believe we’ve been friends since I was 13 and you were 7— you were the only kid I ever babysat, although I would hardly consider it babysitting since you had to endure repeated viewings of Roswell and hearing me moan nonstop about my obsessions. (Remember Nikolai? Ran into him at Erewhon the other day. He’s in LA working as a location scout for Lawrence Bender, and he’s totally unrecognizable now!)
Anyway, after getting approval from my mom’s fortune teller, we’ve chosen an auspicious day in July to celebrate our nuptials, and Capri, where Dolfi spent every summer of his youth and where his family has deep roots, will be absolutely magical at that time. It’s so special to me that you’re joining us, and of course I remember your cousin Charlotte and look forward to seeing her too. I can’t wait for all of us to be on the island together and for you to meet my friends!
My calligrapher is behind schedule because she was a bit unprepared for the sheer number of guests, but the formal invitations should be done by the end of the month. Be on the lookout for yours!
To: Lucie Tang Churchill & Guest
999 Fifth Avenue, Apt. 12B
New York, NY 10021
Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Chiu
request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter
Mr. Adolfo Michelangelo De Vecchi
the son of Conte Andrea De Vecchi and Contessa Laudomia De
at the Villa Lysis, Capri, Italy
on Saturday, July 20, 2013
at five o’clock
and afterward at
RSVP Isabel Chiu
875 Nimes Road
Los Angeles, CA 90077
Capri, Italy, 2013
The trail was lit by tall flickering torches, but Charlotte Barclay still felt like she could have fallen a thousand times on the pathway. She knew she had broken the cardinal rule that every seasoned magazine editor like herself always adhered to: dress sensibly, not frivolously, when traveling. Staring down at the tattered hemline of her party dress and cursing her decision to wear stilettos borrowed from Olivia Lavistock at the last minute, she felt like she had been stumbling through the woods for hours, although it had only been about fifteen minutes, and when the villa finally came into view, its Ionic columns illuminated in high relief against the dark liquid night, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Patting down her fastidious blond bob — a style that had not altered since her days at Miss Porter’s — Charlotte climbed up the uneven marble steps and entered the terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples, feeling disoriented yet again. The graceful veranda that was empty an hour ago had been transformed in the blink of an eye into yet another banquet space where a lavish midnight buffet was set up, and wedding guests lured from the ballroom were grazing like chic gazelles at the long tables laden with delectable treats.
Charlotte glanced around nervously, feeling as if every single one of those damned Italian principessas and contessas was scrutinizing her every move. How could the most exquisite wedding she’d ever witnessed have morphed so quickly into a living nightmare? She saw Auden Beebe pile a heap of lobster ravioli onto his plate, and for a moment she wanted to rush over to him for help. No, he’s the wrong person. He won’t quite understand. The Ortiz sisters were just coming up the stairs. Absolutely not them.
When she spotted Olivia perched at one of the high-top bistro tables along the wall, she could finally feel the tension in her shoulders ease. Olivia would know what to do. Olivia would be cool; she was an avant-garde filmmaker. Olivia was English, but she wasn’t like the other English here. She lived in LA and had gone to school in Paris, so she’d probably seen some shit in her time. Olivia would help her out of this unthinkable mess.
Charlotte marched up alongside her, covertly grabbing her elbow. Olivia immediately caught Charlotte’s look and misread it. “Sure, call me a hypocrite. But after watching you inhaling pasta, focaccia, biscotti, and every possible variation of gluten for the past week, what did you think would happen? This white true and caviar pizza is better than wild muddy sex in a Scottish dale with Sam Heughan. You ought to write about it in your magazine.”
Charlotte tried to speak but found that her throat was too parched.
“I’m talking about the pizza, not the muddy Scottish sex,” Olivia clarified, although Charlotte clearly hadn’t been listening to a word she had said. She simply leaned against Olivia, trying to catch her breath.
“Are you okay?” Olivia asked, registering the shell-shocked expression on Charlotte’s face for the first time.
“I’m okay . . . but Lucie . . . God help the girl!” Charlotte gasped, reaching for a flute of prosecco. Charlotte gulped down the drink, and then, slumping against the stone balustrade, she started to hyperventilate.
“What happened to Lucie? Should I get help?” Olivia asked.
“She doesn’t need any help, she’s fine. Actually, she’s not fine. Oh, my poor Lucie. Everything’s ruined! Abso-fucking-lutely ruined!”
Olivia frowned, not sure what to make of this outburst. She hadn’t known Charlotte Barclay very long, but they had become thick as thieves over the past week, and Olivia would never have imagined that this unflappably poised woman in her early forties would suddenly, apparently, lose it. “Charlotte, how many glasses of champagne did you have at dinner?” Olivia delicately inquired.
Straightening up and brushing off the stray twigs caught on her Oscar de la Renta gown, Charlotte said furtively, “Olivia, can I trust you? Can I count on your help?”
“Of course you can.”
Charlotte continued. “You know I’m only at this wedding as a favor to Lucie’s family. I’m just the plus-one here, and my only job was to keep an eye on my young cousin. But I’ve failed in my duty. Utterly, epically failed. We should never have come to this wedding. We should never have come to Capri. Jesus Christ, her mother’s going to lose her shit when she finds out! And my grandmother’s going to skin me alive!”
Charlotte buried her face in her hands, and Olivia could see that she was legitimately anguished. “Find out what? And where is Lucie now?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I don’t know how I’ll ever look her in the face again.”
“Charlotte, please stop being so cryptic. I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s happened.”
Looking her dead in the eye, Charlotte said, “You’ve got to promise you’ll never tell a soul.”
“Swear on it. On your mother’s grave.”
“Mother still lives and breathes, but I’ll swear on her life.”
Charlotte exhaled. “When did you last see Lucie?”
“I’m not sure . . . on the dance floor with the bridal party? She was dancing with Sandro, and I thought they looked like such a lovely pair — him with those long Botticelli curls, and Lucie in that gossamer dress, dancing amid all those candles. It looked so gorgeous, I almost wanted to take a picture to remember it for a future scene.”
“Yes, they were dancing. But after the fireworks, I noticed that Lucie had disappeared. I heard that some of the young ones had gone up to Villa Jovis again, so I went up to the ruins looking for her.”
“You trekked all the way up the hill again? In my Viviers?” Olivia reflexively peered at Charlotte’s feet, wondering how obliterated her shoes were.
“This fellow in a golf cart drove me up. Anyway, when I got up there, would you believe what I found? A whole bunch of kids smoking weed in the chapel. It looked like a drug den in Tangier!”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “Charlotte, please don’t tell me you are upset because Lucie was doing that. All the kids have been smoking every night behind the pool. That kid whose family owns Ecuador brought a whole trunk bursting to the brim with goodies, so I’m told.”
“Olivia! Do you really think I’m that much of a square? I went to Smith, remember? Lucie’s nineteen years old, and I couldn’t care less if she wants to get baked as a Pop-Tart. Let me finish! I went through the great hall, and then I climbed up to the watchtower, but I couldn’t find Lucie anywhere. I was wandering around those godforsaken ruins lit only by lanterns, and just when I thought I was completely lost, I found a passage leading outside to the cliff walk — that precarious path right by Tiberius’s Leap.”
“Dear God, please don’t tell me Lucie fell!”
“No, it’s nothing like that! I went out to the edge and saw some steps leading down to a little grotto, so I went down and that’s . . .” Charlotte paused for a moment, steeling herself. “That’s when I saw them.”
“Who is them? What were they doing?”
“Olivia, I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe my eyes,” Charlotte moaned.
“Let me guess . . . were they doing bumps?”
“Noooo!” Charlotte said dismissively.
“Olivia, it was . . . unspeakable!”
“Oh, come on, nothing is that unspeakable.”
Charlotte shook her head vehemently. “I’m so mortified. Lucie, my poor little cousin, has ruined herself. She’s absolutely ruined her life!”
Olivia wanted to shake her. “Charlotte Barclay! Tell. Me. What. You. Saw!”
Looking around again as if she had been caught committing the most cardinal sin, Charlotte leaned toward Olivia’s ear and began to whisper.
Olivia’s eyes widened. “Who? Whaaaat?! What the fuck?”
“What the fuck is right. I was so alarmed, I couldn’t help myself. I blurted out, ‘Stop it!’”
Olivia threw her head back and let out a shriek that sounded like murder.