‘Counterfeit’ a Thrilling Morality Test

Ages ago, I listened to a podcast series out of Princeton applying LSAT logic to everyday arguments and news. The host would end each episode by asking, “Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who cares? We’re more interested in the journey than the destination.” The podcast ended during the Obama administration, but I found myself considering that tagline again and again as I read Kirsten Chen’s newest novel, Counterfeit, about high-stakes fraud in the world of designer handbags.

Ava is a thirty-something mother of a toddler who keeps meaning to go back to work after her extended maternity leave, but can’t quite make herself jump back into the world of tax law. Her overworked surgeon husband does little to calm her nerves, especially after he leases an apartment closer to his new hospital to save on commuting during the week. When she encounters an old roommate from college, Winnie, she is hardly her best or most stable self. Maybe that’s why, she confesses later confesses to a detective, she was so susceptible to Winnie’s promise of easy money and thrilling work. Winnie, who returned to her home in China after a disastrous first semester in college, is now posh and poised and carries luxury handbags as though they were discount accessories. Her secret, though, is that the bags are high-end “superfakes,” knockoffs, almost indistinguishable from the real thing, and she has made bank swapping them with real bags.

When Ava takes an impromptu trip to Hong Kong to see family—and take a break from the morass that is her domestic life—Winnie convinces her to take a short ferry ride over to the mainland and check the quality of a shipment of superfakes, since Winnie’s usual contact in China has fallen ill. Ava thinks that’s the end of it, her single act a favor and a one-time payment for a job well done, she tells the detective. Winnie, though, has other plans. Soon Ava finds herself neck-deep in this fraudulent empire Winnie has built on both sides of the Pacific, and a single misstep could jeopardize her family, her reputation, and her freedom. But Winnie has a side of this story, too, and it doesn’t quite align with Ava’s tearful confession to authorities.

The cover to Kirsten Chen's Counterfeit, featuring a stylized Chinese woman looking over a pair of sunglasses. The lenses of the sunglasses reflect a handbag
I’d bet the meager amount in my bank account those handbags cost more than three months’ salary.

Counterfeit is a book in two parts, the first of which is exclusively the transcript-like account Ava gives to a detective who, we later learn, has been hot on the trail of the handbag fraud for months before Ava turned herself in. The second is half a continuation of that confession and half a glimpse into Winnie’s side of things after she flees the country. There’s not much to say beyond that that doesn’t stray into spoiler territory, which is really too bad because I want to gush about the narrative tightrope Chen walks between these two points of view. Saying a work includes an unreliable narrator immediately reduces the power that reveal has.

So I won’t do that. Instead, let me talk about the continued theme of morality that weaves its way through Counterfeit. Swapping the handbags with nearly identical fakes is a victimless crime, Winnie tells Ava—no one’s safety is relying on the authenticity of a purse and people who have the means to drop thousands on a bag aren’t particularly discerning shoppers, anyway. Customers are still getting items in the style and virtually of the quality they wanted; the lack of authenticity is a meaningless asterisk in an otherwise fair transaction.

For a while, Ava believes that, she tells the detective, but starts questioning that after touring the factories producing the bags and seeing overworked and underaged employees toiling away. Winnie’s elderly mentor and business partner needs a transplant, and Ava tries to arrange one at her husband’s hospital. Doing so would mean adding another name to the front of a long list of transplant patients, many of whom will die long before they see the inside of an operating room, yet letting him skip to the head of the line would also mean a hefty donation to the hospital’s efforts to help more disadvantaged patients, making Ava’s husband conflicted about the proposition.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Does it matter, as long as the cash keeps flowing? It’s a question Counterfeit circles, never fully answering, but never ignoring, either. Because like the detective, it’s up to us to decide whether we believe Ava and to what degree as we consider this niche little crime.

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