Kevin Chong writes about a Vancouver I recognize. While the city isn’t necessarily a major player in the novel, it’s an important background and well-evoked with a few simple settings and descriptions. And though this is what drew me to read Beauty Plus Pity I enjoyed the novel greatly for its characters and plotting.
Malcolm Kwan has recently moved back to Vancouver, as well as recently graduating from modelling school, when his father dies. At the same time, his fiancée breaks up with him. Malcolm is struggling to find his footing in a career he’s not sure he wants and support his emotionally unstable mother. He also finds out he has a younger half-sister, the daughter of his father.
Over the next months Malcolm gets to know his sister Hadley, a grade 12 student with a drastically different upbringing. Malcolm is the son of Hong Kong emigrants, artists who have worked hard and been successful. Despite the emotional instability of his childhood, Malcom’s upbringing has been privileged, something he is only truly realizing now. Hadley has grown up with a single mother and a sometimes stepfather on the opposite end of the city (a fact Chong doesn’t embellish on but if you know Vancouver you know this is a crucial difference). Both are a result of their father’s decisions but as they age, Malcolm and Hadley each become responsible for how they respond to this.
We follow Malcolm as he learns more about both his father and his mother and as his relationships with women (in many forms) shift and mature. I appreciate that the characters really seem to change and develop as the novel progresses and that Malcolm, who is kind of unlikeable at the beginning, becomes more sympathetic. It would also have been easy for Hadley to be a one-note character but she is given some decent depth and her own world that Malcolm doesn’t always understand.
The greatest weakness of the novel is probably the ending which leaves a lot of loose ends dangling. While this can be realistic, the story is apparently being told by Malcolm a year later so there’s no real reason why he couldn’t have offered a little more closure. Overall though, this is a strong and enjoyable story.