There’s not much dating happening right now. If you thought recent discussions of power imbalances were stripping workplace romances of their, well, romance, try a global pandemic that seems likely to do away with workplaces altogether.
Dating apps cheerily announce that they are bringing people together, only, you know, not literally. A much-shared tweet by comedian Kaitlyn McQuin (@kaitlynmcquin) reads: “Welcome back to courtship, Brad. […] We’re pen pals now, my dude. We bout to get Jane Austen up in here.”
With all this in mind, now is a good time to indulge in Lauren Ho’s Last Tang Standing, a whirlwind rom-com that makes your liver ache and your wallet sigh (well, mine, anyway).
Fans of Crazy Rich Asians will recognise certain similarities – set in an Asian economic powerhouse, with mouthwatering descriptions of street food, and more designer name-dropping than you can shake a stick at.
But whereas Crazy Rich Asians took a girl-next-door protagonist and dropped her into the shark-tank of Singapore’s super-rich, Last Tang Standing visits a more aspirational segment of Singaporean society.
Our heroine, Andrea Tang, is 33, recently single, and soon to be the oldest unmarried female in the extended Tang family. None of her other achievements – highflying lawyer gunning for partnership, own apartment, designer clothes – can shield her from family-wide disapproval of her singledom.
“None of her other achievements can shield her from family-wide disapproval of her singledom.
Her mother calls her at all hours to bemoan her unfilial failure to provide grandchildren, female acquaintances pity her loudly at parties, and the Tang matriarch, Auntie Wei Wei, is known to cut the childless out of her will.
The first chapter sets the scene with a humiliating family Chinese New Year party, and in the subsequent chapters Andrea’s life is laid out in all its cynicism and frustration.
We meet her friends and colleagues, none of whom Andrea seems to like very much. Interactions involve constant jockeying for position, everything is dismissed as either a power move or weakness, and so much alcohol is consumed that you can’t help wondering how Andrea actually gets through her 12+ hour workdays.
Andrea is funny, especially when she is at her most mistrustful. She’s particularly wary of Suresh, a senior associate and rival who has just moved from London and is now sharing her office.
Never mind that he “smells like cinnamon” and has “a rugby player physique”, he threatens everything Andrea has worked for, and Andrea has no greater desire than to crush him utterly underfoot. Obviously, he’s one of the love interests, although Andrea remains resolutely oblivious.
In desperation, Andrea downloads a dating app and matches with hip 23-year-old Orson and agonises over whether one can truly fall in love with someone who has mastered neither spelling nor punctuation.
Other dating adventures ensue as Andrea’s cousin lines up Tinder dates on her behalf.
And so begins a relatable swerve into modern dating culture. From dick pics (“unimpressive dick pics”) to ghosting to finding a colleague’s husband on Tinder, Andrea is soon even more dispirited than she was before.
But at a secretive and elite book club (“Will I be expected to participate in any ritual sacrifices after reading aloud from the Satanic Bible?”) Andrea meets tycoon Eric Deng, who asks her to dinner. She also discovers Suresh’s dream of being a graphic novelist, which awakens memories of her own youthful dream of being a writer and a human rights lawyer.
Our heroine is torn between who she thinks she has to be, and who she wants to be. Meanwhile, when a work trip to Luxembourg (Thank you, Lauren Ho!) throws her together with Suresh, Andrea struggles to ignore the growing tension between them.
Flair and humour
With the time-stamped diarising of dramatic statements and constant drinking from a single working woman in her 30s, the novel overtly references Bridget Jones’s Diary, and although the story is not directly lifted from an Austen plot, the concerns of stability, filial responsibility, and choosing a socially suitable mate are all Austen-esque motivations.
“Last Tang Standing is a romp, and to keep it that way requires a certain superficiality
However, Last Tang Standing is a romp, and to keep it that way requires a certain superficiality. Andrea’s Singapore feels like the montages used as shorthand for any major city – a shot of the Eye for London, a view of the Statue of Liberty for New York.
Where more difficult subjects such as racism or the destructive work culture Andrea experiences are touched on, the story doesn’t allow for any deeper exploration.
Finally, Last Tang Standing is a slick example of genre placement. Perfectly positioned between two generations of iconic romantic comedies – Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians – readers know exactly what to expect from that description alone. I will be very surprised if we don’t see a Last Tang Standing movie come 2024.
From its stylish cover to the pacy plotting, Last Tang Standing joins the ranks of chick lit with flair and humour, and is the perfect choice for anyone considering taking the plunge of looking for love in a time of coronavirus.
Rose Edwards published her debut novel The Harm Tree in July 2019.You can find heron Twitter as @redwardswrites.
Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho
First Published: 01/06/2020
Length: 403 Pages
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