23 October 2016

Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Summary from Goodreads:
A brilliant and utterly engaging novel—Emma set in modern Asia—about a young woman’s rise in the glitzy, moneyed city of Singapore, where old traditions clash with heady modern materialism.

On the edge of twenty-seven, Jazzy hatches a plan for her and her best girlfriends: Sher, Imo, and Fann. Before the year is out, these Sarong Party Girls will all have spectacular weddings to rich ang moh—Western expat—husbands, with Chanel babies (the cutest status symbols of all) quickly to follow. Razor-sharp, spunky, and vulgarly brand-obsessed, Jazzy is a determined woman who doesn't lose.

As she fervently pursues her quest to find a white husband, this bombastic yet tenderly vulnerable gold-digger reveals the contentious gender politics and class tensions thrumming beneath the shiny exterior of Singapore’s glamorous nightclubs and busy streets, its grubby wet markets and seedy hawker centers. Moving through her colorful, stratified world, she realizes she cannot ignore the troubling incongruity of new money and old-world attitudes which threaten to crush her dreams. Desperate to move up in Asia’s financial and international capital, will Jazzy and her friends succeed?

Vividly told in Singlish—colorful Singaporean English with its distinctive cadence and slang—Sarong Party Girls brilliantly captures the unique voice of this young, striving woman caught between worlds. With remarkable vibrancy and empathy, Cheryl Tan brings not only Jazzy, but her city of Singapore, to dazzling, dizzying life.

Sarong Party Girls came across my radar in a blogger pitch from HarperCollins.  It has comps to Crazy Rich Asians and the idea of a novel written in "Singlish" (the Singaporean creole that combines English, Cantoese, and Malay among other languages) really intrigued me.  It made a perfect Readathon book.

The story of Jazzy and her friends - who at 27 years old are falling on the "old" side of the single-girl crowd - and their attempts to secure an ang moh (white Western and RICH) husband is compulsively readable.  In between the girls' evenings out and lunches with successful (read: married and with at least one half-Asian baby because that's what really seals the deal), Tan slips in a bit of cultural criticism.  Through narrator Jazzy's eyes, we see that young women like her are caught between traditional southeast Asian family values (get married, be respectful, keep house), Western white feminist values (get an education, get a job, be respected for your work ethic and career), and Western male misogyny (the "Asian doll" stereotype, the assumption of sex work, being held up to specific ideals of female beauty that few women in the world can meet let alone maintain).  In one scene Jazzy convinces a male friend to bring her along as an "escort" for a "men's evening out" and it is eye-opening.

I've seen some readers echo the blurb's comparison to Austen's Emma but I don't quite agree there.  I was reminded a lot of Thackeray's Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.  Jazzy reflects Becky's desire to move up the social ladder through marriage but also Becky's gimlet eye and resourcefulness. And, also like Becky, Jazzy doesn't want to "settle" when she wants more, even if that means heartbreak and disillusionment.

Sarong Party Girls was an excellent read start to finish.  And don't worry about the Singlish - you'll pick it up after a few pages.  (I find it much easier to read than A Clockwork Orange's Russian-based argot "Nadsat", for example.)

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher.

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