Book review: Kirstin Chen's counterfeit handbag hustlers fake it till they make it

Singaporean Kirstin Chen's third novel, Counterfeit. PHOTOS: WILLIAM MORROW, SARAH DERAGON


By Kirstin Chen
Fiction/The Borough Press/Paperback/277 pages/$29.96/Buy here/Borrow here
4 out of 5

All her life, Ava Wong has played by the rules. She has a Stanford University law degree, a successful surgeon for a husband, and an adorable two-year-old son.

But beneath this facade, Ava is a mess. Her marriage is crumbling. The child she gave up her high-flying career for is driving her crazy.

When her old college roommate Winnie Fang waltzes back into her life after 20 years with a Birkin handbag on her arm and a lucrative - if less than legal - proposition, Ava is primed to take the bait.

What Winnie does is import counterfeit luxury handbags from China to the United States and swop them for the real deal, banking on the generous returns policy of department stores. She resells the originals online at a discount.

She is raking in the profits, but she needs a tax law-savvy American partner she can trust - which is where Ava comes in.

Or so it seems.

Its heroines may be faking it till they make it, but Singaporean Kirstin Chen's third novel is the real deal.

The San Francisco-based author made her debut with flavourful family drama Soy Sauce For Beginners (2014, buy here) and scored a Singapore Literature Prize nomination for her tragic historical novel Bury What We Cannot Take (2018, buy here).

But she has levelled up with Counterfeit, a propulsive, clever yarn that she deftly manipulates with sleight of hand.

Counterfeit draws the reader into a gleaming world of duplicates, from the vast replica-stuffed shopping complexes of Guangzhou to the black-market factories of Dongguan.

Chen seductively renders material allure on the page: lemon yellow Longchamp Le Pliages, buttery calfskin Chanel clutches; a rare crocodile Birkin 25 the colour of blood.

But at the novel's heart is its complex leading women: model-minority Ava, striving to satisfy the expectations of her immigrant parents; and Winnie, who clawed her way out of her claustrophobic home town of Xiamen and is determined to scam her way to the top.

Both are flawed, messy and amoral - and you cannot help but admire how hard they hustle for their version of the American dream.

"A Harvard degree is not so different from a designer handbag," Winnie tells Ava. "They both signal that you're part of the club, they open doors."

Chen lays bare late-stage capitalist society as a system of status symbols, where belonging is as superficial as the difference between a $40,000 branded handbag and its nearly indistinguishable copy at a fraction of the price.

If the dream you were sold was a lie, she argues, then why not rig the game? This knock-off novel knocks it out of the park.

If you like this, read: Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters, And Shapeshifters Of The Feminine Persuasion by Tori Telfer (HarperPerennial, 2021, $29.59, buy here, borrow here), a look at female con artistes through history, from Wang Ti, scammer of Beijing's elites, to Cassie Chadwick, who claimed to be the heiress of industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

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