BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – Kirsten Chen’s latest novel, Counterfeit (2022), follows Ava Wong – a straight-edge Chinese-American lawyer shackled to an agonizingly mundane routine of house chores and taking care of her maddening infant, Henri, who cannot seem to cease his daily tantrums. Married to a successful yet always busy doctor, Ollie, Ava is desperate for a change big enough to shake the foundations of her comfortable San Francisco suburban life. Change comes in the form of Winnie, a mainland Chinese woman and formerly Ava’s college roommate from her long-past Stanford days. After a fateful reconnection, we learn that Winnie has become a tycoon of the criminal underground, running a prosperous counterfeit luxury handbag business. Winnie, a master at reading and manipulating people, sees the signs of upper-middle class discord in Ava. In a moment of profound weakness, Winnie ensnares Ava into her scheme.
Chen delivers a masterpiece of fiction that goes beyond a simple “Ocean’s 8” style crime novel. On the surface, the reader enjoys a spectacle of glitz and glam, a slice of the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by wealthy foreign heiresses whose weekly allowance goes towards new Louis Vuitton suitcases or Bottega Venetta clutches. However, beneath the sparkling exterior is a brutally honest deconstruction of the “American Dream” and all its white picket fence glory – an essential piece of Americana that Chen’s writing eagerly and brilliantly puts into question.
Kirsten Chen, a Chinese-Singaporean author, personally witnessed the opulence at Stanford, much like the main two anti-heroes of her story. Here first novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners (2014), won her international acclaim by being the editor’s pick at Oh, The Oprah Magazine. Her lucky streak mixed in with natural talent afforded her newest release, Counterfeit (2022), to be the chosen pick of the illustrious Reese Witherspoon Book Club.
We first meet Ava Wong mid-interrogation with a detective who never actually speaks. In a stunning first-person narrative, Ava Wong confesses her crime while also placing heavy blame on the notorious Asian stereotypes of overworking and having strong Confucius-based family values. So why did she go along with Winnie’s schemes? Ava attributes her guilt to her unshakable drive: “What can I say, Detective? You don’t earn straight A’s all your life without being uncommonly competitive.” In essence, Ava, and many other Asian-Americans like her were raised to fight and preserve their image, reputation, and honor at all costs.
Ava’s parents and her strict upbringing are the sources of her complacent nature. Ava explains how for Westerners, such a cultural background is probably hard to grasp, but for herself and many like her who were “schooled in the supremacy of “face” – the figurative face… [Breaking] free from constraints to think for oneself becomes a Herculean task.” We readers cannot help it. We are forced to sympathize with Ava – even going so far as to cheer on her criminal misdeeds. After all, “a bag is a bag is a bag.” How harmful can Ava and Winnie’s schemes really be? Aren’t they simply cheating the corrupt, capitalist system that cheats regular people daily?
Everything changes when the perspective shifts halfway through, and for the first time, we hear Winnie’s side of the story. Chen’s writing achieves something fascinating and subversive – she plays on the unconscious bias the readers may have in the first act of the book. We root for the Asian-American, the girl raised by immigrant parents. We believe her sob story of a joyless, hardworking childhood that molded her into becoming a hollow ex-lawyer in a broken marriage who is eventually dazzled by a scheming Chinese con artist. You want Ava to come out on top and for Winnie to reap the consequences of her deceitful nature. Chen uses racial and cultural stereotypes to her advantage, deepening the narrative and forcing us readers to reevaluate our preconceived notions of foreigners, particularly from East Asia.
In reality, Winnie and Ava are on the same mission. Without revealing too much, I assure you that your emotions and beliefs about the characters will be radically altered. The true core of Chen’s storytelling elicits that both Ava and Winnie, despite their vastly different backgrounds, are both quintessentially “American.” Both chase their dreams at any cost. Both are unapologetically driven. And just like in the movies, both reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
After turning the novel’s last page, I could not help but notice the duality of meaning within Chen’s spectacular writing. Lingering in the foreground was the “American Dream” – more importantly, its deceptive nature. Like Ava Wong, we American women are taught to believe that in order to be happy, we must strive for the three M’s: motherhood, marriage, and mortgage – a white-picket-fence life. But is that ever enough? It certainly wasn’t for Ava and millions of American women just like her. The “American Dream” and its ideals of material wealth and suburban comfort are, dare I suggest, counterfeit.
Can we blame Ava and Winnie for chasing a fake dream through lies, skilled conmanship, and fraud? Whether you agree with Ava and Winnie or not, Chen’s novel will keep you entertained and dazzled — If not by existential philosophy, then by flashy luxury and brilliantly entertaining literary twists.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.