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Book Review: ‘Counterfeit’ by Kirstin Chen

Book Review: ‘Counterfeit’ by Kirstin Chen

COUNTERFEIT, by Kirstin Chen

At face value, Kirstin Chen’s new novel, “Counterfeit,” is easy to sum up: Ava Wong, a Chinese-American lawyer, re-establishes contact with her enigmatic roommate, Winnie, and becomes embroiled in a scheme involving the importation of counterfeit luxury. handbags. When problems arise, Winnie disappears, and Ava has to deal with the consequences. Apparently, what you see is what you get – a scam story, a pop feminist hijacker, a fashionable frolic. Fun! Give popcorn. Except that nothing in this novel is what it seems.

Make no mistake, “Counterfeit” is an entertaining, luxurious read – but beneath its glitter and twinkle, it is also a wise deconstruction of the American dream and myth of the model minority.

The novel begins as a conciliatory first-person narrative. Ava is in the middle of interrogation and talks to a detective whose voice we never hear. It’s a one-sided conversation, an apparent confession. Her defense relies on worn-out Asian stereotypes about hard work and family values. She attributes her current predicament to her innate sense of drive – “What can I say, detective? You do not earn the right A’s all your life without being unusually competitive” – ​​and grew up in a culture fixated on image, reputation and honor, which “Must be fought for and preserved at all costs.”

Ava blames her upbringing for lack of agency in decision-making: “It was easier and less risky to disappear into the picture my parents – and the world – had of the good Chinese-American daughter.”

A reader cannot be blamed for being carried away in Ava’s story, for sympathizing with her situation, even anchoring her acquittal. Halfway through, one can assume that this novel’s most pressing question is whether Ava gets away with her misdeeds. This would be fine – but luckily the second half of the book erases that assumption.

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Winnie’s voice enters the story in the center, and shines a strong light on the eccentricity of the previous section. We are suddenly familiar with someone’s inner thoughts and feelings; suddenly we realize that we have been fed with a monologue. Quotation marks appear for the first time.

Readers love a twist, and I do not want to ruin this by revealing too much, but Chen is in on something innovative and subversive here. She uses the device to turn Asian and Asian-American stereotypes upside down. She plays on biases, both conscious and unconscious. Now that more of the picture is colored in, we need to reconsider Ava’s pioneering defense; it becomes a subversive act, a recovery of power. She has played on the detective’s (and the reader’s) unconscious (or conscious) bias. She used a stereotype to her advantage.

If you have not figured it out by now, Ava and Winnie have an ax to sharpen. They are unruly and inexcusable, and stop for nothing to get what they want. In this way, they are typically American with distinctive American dreams. This is Chen’s real subject – if I dare use the word “real” anywhere near this novel.

The American ideal is a life of material prosperity and comfort, but equal opportunities are sincere, false. Counterfeit. Then we can blame Ava for feeling entitled to, as Winnie puts it, “a life of wealth and joy and adventure, a life she would have been promised if only she had worked hard enough and followed the rules and never, ever fell up” ?

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Before Winnie reappeared in her life, Ava had followed the rules. “She had gone to the right schools, chosen the right career, married the right partner, formed the right family – and made huge sacrifices in the process, and yet she was here, miserably, terrified of the prospect of her entire existence. had been built on lies. “

You can decide for yourself whether “Counterfeit” is a story about real American gumption or not. Either way, you have to tackle the question: If the dream itself is a false promise, why not achieve it through false?

Camille Perri is the author of “The Assistants” and “When Katie Met Cassidy”.

COUNTERFEIT, by Kirstin Chen | 288 s. | William Morrow | $ 27.99

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