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Perfect for fashionistas, high-crime aficionados, and readers of CRAZY RICH ASIANS and FAMILY TRUST, Kirstin Chen’s COUNTERFEIT is a glittering, whip-smart novel that dares to peek beyond and inside the world of designer handbags (and very good fakes).

On paper, Ava Wong has it all: she is a lawyer (although currently on a leave of absence), she is married to a surgeon (who she almost never sees), and her beautiful young son, Henri, is being raised bilingual and with great privilege (and more than his share of toddler temper tantrums). As a Chinese American woman, she is no stranger to racism and bigotry and has always made an effort to play by the rules and fly under the radar --- except when excelling with perfectionism. Starting with her admittance to Stanford, Ava has always followed her parents’ lead, strived to appear cool, smart and effortless to her mostly white classmates, and geared her desires and interests toward success.

"COUNTERFEIT may prove that fakes are often as good as (and often ethically better than) the real thing, but you don’t need an appraiser to prove that Chen’s latest is high-quality, genuine good fiction."

Yet somehow, her hunger and ambition have only given her a crumbling marriage, debt that feels insurmountable, and an extremely cranky child. So when her timid, geeky college friend Winnie Fang makes a reappearance in her life, she is shocked by the formerly “fobby” (fresh off the boat) girl’s transformation into a confident, poised and sharp woman. She isn’t planning to become more than good acquaintances with Winnie, and she certainly isn’t expecting to lead a global enterprise with her. Yet, when we meet Ava, she is confessing to a detective about her role in a counterfeit handbag scheme and her relationship with Winnie.

Once an unappealing Stanford student (who may or may not have left the college in the middle of a cheating scandal), Winnie has since returned to and left her hometown of Xiamen, married and divorced an American, and even taught at a prestigious private school. None of these life experiences add up to the glamorous woman carrying a Birkin bag who is “catching up” with Ava, nor does the 20-year gap in their friendship account for how perfect Winnie’s timing is. She arrives just when Ava is at her lowest; even better, she is incredible with her son, able not only to teach him Chinese stories and songs, but to calm his wildest tantrums.

It is not until Ava accompanies Winnie to return yet another designer handbag that Winnie confesses her real interest in meeting with Ava. She is trafficking in fake designer bags from Guangzhou, China, and she needs a contact overseas who can assess her products for quality before they are smuggled to Dubai and then to America. She maintains that it’s no different from the retail mark-up on “Italian-made” designer bags, but it’s obvious that she's driven by the money and the thrill. And it just so happens that Ava is in need of a break from her dissolving marriage.

What follows is a brilliant, incisive and somehow unbelievably fun foray into the world of designer products, wealth and intrigue. While Winnie chose Ava for obvious reasons --- Ava’s own desperation, her lifelong role as a goody-two-shoes, her willingness to succeed --- it quickly becomes clear that even Ava has not been totally honest with the detective questioning her about Winnie’s latest disappearance…or with the reader. As she chronicles her role in Winnie’s scheme, readers watch as Ava becomes first intoxicated by her glamorous friend, then enamored of the business, and finally hopelessly duped by the lure of having a secret big enough to topple an empire.

In throwing these two different yet similarly ambitious women together on the enterprise of a lifetime, Chen simultaneously skewers designer bag culture, disgraceful factory working conditions, the myth of the model minority, and even the competitiveness of female friendships. The result is worldly, investigative, culturally sensitive and plain fun, an intoxicating combination that manages to educate even as it entertains.

The characters are gorgeously developed, compelling even when they are wholly unlikable, and the voice of Ava is particularly memorable. In accessible and evocative tones, Ava speaks directly to the reader as she describes her struggle to meet her parents’ expectations and her desire for something more, so that even when you are cringing at her choices, you are still secretly rooting for her and her impassioned pleas. At the same time, Winnie’s critical --- and often manipulative --- views of the world are biting and immediate, even when you can easily track the motives behind them.

Whether you consider yourself a bag hag, a purse lady, or a woman who has been condemned to a life of handbag-carrying as a result of the fashion industry’s hatred of pockets, you’ll find the narrative as glittery, desirable and status-affirming as the most luxurious handbag. COUNTERFEIT may prove that fakes are often as good as (and often ethically better than) the real thing, but you don’t need an appraiser to prove that Chen’s latest is high-quality, genuine good fiction.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 17, 2022

by Kirstin Chen

  • Publication Date: June 13, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0063119552
  • ISBN-13: 9780063119550