We are truly living in a time of scammers, so it seems natural that our contemporary fiction should start reflecting this trend, both in terms of the stories it chooses to tell and the way those stories are framed. Kirstin Chen’s latest novel, Counterfeit, is a story of scammers, and one in which the audience themselves may find themselves hoodwinked several times over.
On the surface, the story is a run-of-the-mill crime caper, in which two women team up to launch a manufacturing business to make and distribute counterfeit handbags. And not like the obviously misspelled Prada clutches we all used to buy down on Canal Street back in the early 2000s, but high-quality knockoffs that are (nearly) impossible to tell from the real thing. But the story ultimately turns out to wrestle with much meatier topics, from reclaiming and challenging Asian stereotypes (by having her characters use those model minority perceptions to their advantage) and critiquing the myths surrounding Chinese overachiever culture.
The story first follows Ava Wong, a straight-laced Chinese American lawyer who has never met a rule she didn’t follow. Married to a prominent surgeon and on indefinite hiatus from her corporate law job to raise her two-year-old son, her life—on the surface at least—seems pretty perfect. Underneath, however, everything is falling apart. Her husband Oli’s never home, Henri’s constant, unending tantrums have her constantly on edge, and she secretly hates the fancy law degree she never wanted to get in the first place.
Enter Winnie Fang, Ava’s former Stanford roommate who suddenly reenters her life, looking well rested, professionally physically maintained, and effortlessly rich. Ava’s stunned—and more than a bit jealous—at least until she learns that Winnie’s easy wealth comes from a complex system of fraud. Her scheme, in which her company makes fake luxury bags which she then returns for cash at upscale boutiques, before selling the genuine articles on eBay at a discounted but still tidy profit, somehow pushes every one of Ava’s good girl buttons. Winnie’s not playing by the rules. She’s cheating. And all her success is thereby tainted.
But while on an impromptu trip to China to visit relatives, Ava’s husband cancels her credit cards, leaving her no choice but to reluctantly go to work for Winnie rather than tell her gossipy family that her perfect American life isn’t actually so perfect after all. And thus a partnership is born.
(Basically, I’ve already fancast Michelle Yeoh and Doona Bae in the upcoming feature film adaptation, just saying. Fight me.)
Counterfeit is a fast-paced, immersive thriller, and its story strikes a perfect balance between feminist fury and dangerous scheming, topped off with an impressive array of luxe details about the fashion industry, its dark, exploitive underbelly, and the bags that spark envy and massive waitlists around the world. Its first half follows Ava’s confession to a police detective after their scheme is found out; its second switches perspectives to Winnie’s version of events. Ava paints Winnie as a dastardly criminal mastermind, willing to use and exploit everyone in her path for her own game. Winnie’s story makes Ava look a lot more scheming and manipulative, someone who frequently leans into cultural perceptions and expectations to ensure she’s seen a certain way. Whose story is genuine? Whose is counterfeit? Are they both fake in different ways?
Chen’s deft writing makes it clear that no one is entirely who they appear to be, and that the truth about Ava and Winnie—from who they are and the specifics of how their business works to the culture that has helped shaped them both—is much more complicated than it might first appear. In many ways, readers are as much of a mark as any of the people who might accidentally buy a Birkin superfake at their local Herme store. Who you believe, as well as what you think of their motivations, will likely change multiple times over the course of the story, and until the final page, you won’t be entirely sure who or who is not telling the truth. (Spoiler alert: The answer is no one, not really, but it all makes sense in the end.)
Counterfeit made the list as one of our must-read thrillers for the summer, and in truth, it’s an absolutely perfect beach or poolside escapist adventure, sly, funny, and whip-smart by turns. You’ll tear through this in an afternoon—and maybe think twice the next time you end up in a high-end store.
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.