Counterfeit by Kirsten Chen – Handbags, fakes and high fashion – a story of ambition and more in contemporary America and China

Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen

When is an outrageous scam involving counterfeit handbags a good subject for a darkly humorous novel? In this new novel Kirsten Chen answers that; when it involves the experience of women who do everything correctly, make their American – Chinese family happy on the surface, but are really making a lot of money by a complicated system. In the first part of this story Ava is telling her story to a faceless detective. It is a story that goes back to Stanford, when she was a student, and first met a fellow student who seemed endlessly curious. Winnie is that seemingly innocent and bewildered high achieving student who suddenly disappears at the same time as an academic scandal involving Chinese students blows up. When she reappears in Ava’s life some years later, she seems to have all the answers, plus a snappy line in dressing and remarkably expensive handbags. When she makes an offer to Ava, at what point will she get in too far?

This is a fascinating book which looks at the designer handbag industry, where limited edition bags can fetch a premium price in a world where image is all. It also looks at women like Ava who seemingly have it all – a successful surgeon husband, a child and a temporarily paused career as a corporate lawyer. She has seemingly always worked hard, done everything to satisfy her determined and ambitious parents, got an excellent college education but still wants more. Winnie is seemingly a clever and creative fraudster who exploits a loophole in the demand for bags that are sold for enormous prices. Is she everything she seems? Can she truly persuade the less determined Ava to enter into a scheme which involves the manufacture of incredible copies?

Ava’s narrating voice is a convincing one. She has decided not to return to her demanding career despite its high financial rewards to stay at home with her difficult son, Henri. Even with a full time nanny, Maria, she struggles to contain Henri’s outbursts in her story. Her husband Oli is often absent, working as a surgeon in a transplant unit. Ava’s account recalls how she is first approached by Winnie who is trying to obtain a liver transplant for a Chinese businessman. 

The style of this book carefully addresses the strain that Ava feels under as someone who has always achieved her targets, but feels she is failing as a mother. It looks at the way demand for the bags fuels an industry that not only produces these highly desirable objects, but in unsavoury conditions also produces the copies that are virtually indistinguishable. After all, what is the difference between a fake and a real item when they both look good? This book looks at identities, truth and creative fraud, and looks at the victims. It manages to look at American society’s attitudes to women, immigrants and the demand for expensive accessories. It also looks at the costs of labour in China for the workers and those who control them, as well as the ambitions of those who live there. 

This is a lively and well written story which certainly kept my interest even though I have no interest in designer handbags themselves. It has a lot to say about women’s ambitions, and the lengths that they may be willing to go in order to achieve what they desire. It is a clever idea to look at a crime which may seem to be victimless, but actually has its costs. It uses various narrative techniques to good effect, and Chen writes with great confidence and flair. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, a variation of some elements of the American dream, and a look at the nature of friendship and fakes.