A former college roommate drops into Ava Wong’s seemingly perfect life after 20 years and wreaks havoc in Counterfeit, Kirstin Chen’s lively caper about importing counterfeit high-end handbags from China. Chen’s third novel is a breezy read with unexpected twists, carried along by Ava’s seemingly heartfelt narration as she confesses her involvement to a police detective. Along the way, there are plenty of fascinating details about luxury goods and the shadow industry of fake designer products. (Even readers who aren’t fashion devotees will likely find themselves checking the prices of crocodile Birkin 25s and Hermes Evelynes as the plot thickens.)
Ava, a Chinese American graduate of Stanford University and law school at the University of California, Berkeley, is a corporate lawyer on leave with a toddler son and a surgeon husband. She’s given little thought to former roommate Winnie Fang, who abruptly left college and returned home to China after what appeared to be an SAT scandal. Upon their unexpected reunion, Ava is amazed by Winnie’s transformation from an “awkward, needy . . . fresh off the boat” college freshman into a glamorous, successful businesswoman.
Rather quickly, Winnie inserts herself into Ava’s life. The timing is just right for such an intervention, as Ava is particularly vulnerable: Her mother recently died, her son throws nonstop tantrums, and Ava can’t stand the thought of returning to her legal firm.
Eventually Winnie recruits Ava to join her scheme: buying high-end handbags from luxury stores, returning imported counterfeits to the stores and then selling the real bags on eBay. Winnie maintains that it’s a victimless crime: “Those luxury brands, they’re the villains.” As the women dart back and forth to China and Ava falls in line with Winnie’s ways of thinking (“That level of audacity, daring, nerve—well, it was intoxicating.”), the novel explores questions of status, commerce and how the two are intertwined. As Winnie notes, “A Harvard degree is not so different from a designer handbag. They both signal that you’re part of the club, they open doors.”
Chen, author of Soy Sauce for Beginners and Bury What We Cannot Take, is a versatile, savvy plotter, and Counterfeit readers will be easily drawn into this morally complicated world.