I’ve read F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby twice, and each time I’ve been baffled by the acclaim*. Much like the critics of its time, I think the book is fine, but not much more than that. The trouble is that Gatsby is an idiot, Nick not much better, and Tom and Daisy are just awful. The only character I’ve ever cared about was Jordan Baker, which is honestly the main reason I agreed to read and review this magical, queer, Asian adaptation of it.
Tho that isn’t entirely accurate: I picked it up because I really dig Nghi Vo’s writing, and loved the idea of her spinning a fresh view of the classic story by centering the only character I found remotely bearable in it. In this adaptation, Jordan is the adopted Vietnamese daughter of the moneyed, blue-blooded Baker family. She moved away from the Middle West to live with her suffragette Aunt Justine in New York City, and spends most of her time on the town when not playing in golf tournaments. Through her old friend Daisy Buchanan, she meets Nick Carraway, whom she has to rescue from one of Jay Gatsby’s infamous parties. They get involved but everything ends poorly for everyone.
Plot-wise, the book is faithful to its source material, only adding in magic as a fillip that does more for Jordan’s story than anyone else’s. There are several interesting plot twists, mostly to do with the paper-cutting magic Jordan inherently knows, and lots of interesting notes on what it’s like to be Asian in a primarily white environment. That last is probably The Chosen And The Beautiful’s greatest strength, as Jordan navigates the casually racist high society of Jazz Age America. She’s both a part of and separate from it, both clinging to and repulsed by a world that’s all she’s ever known, tho she strongly suspects there’s much more outside it. This struggle to reconcile the dominant milieu with her sense of self is certainly far more compelling than Gatsby’s, in large part due to the fact that she’s not basing her entire life’s purpose on her idea of another person. As an Asian person who’s often found herself the minority participant in many situations, whether it be for reasons of race or class or wealth, I found Jordan’s wry observations to be extremely relatable.
But it’s not just that sense of kinship that has me rating TCatB more highly than TGG itself: it’s the sense that Ms Vo at least empathizes with her characters despite having a clear-eyed view them as deeply flawed people. This goes beyond being sex- or queer-positive, tho those are certainly admirable quantities this book possesses. Mr Fitzgerald’s contempt for his characters in TGG was juxtaposed with his need for us to find them somehow tragically romantic, and thus compelling. How on earth are we meant to admire characters the author can barely hide his seething disdain for? Ms Vo’s more thoughtful treatment of the exact same cast highlights this jarring flaw of the source book: she views them more as people than figures, and the story is made all the better for it. I honestly can’t decide whether you’d like TCatB better if you enjoyed TGG or otherwise.
I did hope that there were parts in the ARC I read that were subsequently fixed by an editor: Ms Vo’s writing overall is terrific, but towards the end of the novel had a bad habit of losing its references, such that I had to backtrack my way through paragraphs to try and figure out what exactly pronouns and clauses were referring to (there’s probably a more concise term for this phenomenon but I majored in IT, not English.) TCatB isn’t my favorite work of hers, but is a really terrific way to frame the Asian experience in America through a fantasy-historical-literary lens.
*Oh, fine, I know why, it’s because so many are forced to read it in high school and it leaves an early impression, even tho its primary strengths are its relative shortness, salaciousness and strength of symbolism, the holy trinity of certain English teachers desperate to get their students to even think about reading.
The Chosen And The Beautiful by Nghi Vo was published June 1 2021 by tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including