The trouble with the aristocracy these days is that they just don't sell as well as celebrities. With only middling beauty and brains, staggering debt, and a marked disdain for reputable employment, Judith "Jude" Leea descendent of Korean royalty with an utterly bourgeois fixation on classis finally forced to turn herself over to a madam so upscale she makes Heidi Fleiss look untouchable. Madame Tartakov"that modern-day Fagin"makes a good living selling the lineage of girls from the world's finest families to New York men of high credit. In Y. Euny Hong's first novel, this isn't quite the morality play it seems. Jude, that incorrigibly plucky aristocrat, can squirm her way out of anything.
Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners
Y. Euny Hong
Simon & Schuster, 270 pp., $24
The secret, it turns out, to surviving in a city full of beauties and brains but few graces is a surfeit of sitcom-ready charm. This, for Jude, comes second nature, if not from her royal ancestors then from the ones she name-drops with far greater frequencyBecky Sharpe, Elizabeth Bennet, and Jane Eyre, and all the rest of those proto-capitalist players. With a flawless ear for hyperliterate one-liners ("Jung's unchecked early years had made her untamed and feral, like a female Heathcliff") and a sharp eye for a good deal (the adorable Kasporov double she chooses), Jude overcomes at least two dozen plot-breakers, easy as starving a peasant.
Extortionist madam? Get a new occupation. Mean sugar daddy? Find a nice boyfriend. Most of Jude's problems are really Hong's because, given a heroine blessed with such supernatural privilege and charm, it's hard to keep her thwarted for more than a few pages. Lineage might not count for much anymore, but it always helps to be funny.