The Chosen and the Beautiful
by Nghi Vo
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 6, 2021
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I received a free e-book of The Chosen and the Beautiful from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It will be published June 1. In years past, Nghi Vo's debut novel would have been considered fan fiction, but now that F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is in the public domain we might be seeing other variations on its themes. I had not read Gatsby until earlier this week, even though I've had ample opportunity. It has been on my Kindle several years, one of the many titles I've purchased as a Kindle Deal of the Day. Now it's available free in different digital formats from Project Gutenberg. It's considered a classic, but I didn't care for it, mainly because most of the characters are egotistical, priviledged bores. There is still a bit of that in Vo's story, but it is told from a different perspective. Fitzgerald's novel was told by Nick Carraway, Vo's is narrated by Jordan Baker, the professional golfer friend of Daisy Buchanan. There is not a clear description of Jordan in the original, but there is in the new book. Here she is an orphan(?) from Vietnam (even though she refers to it as Tonkin), adopted by an American missionary when she was just a child, taken back to the States, where her adoptive mother died shortly after, then she was raised by the grandparents until their deaths. An aunt who had moved to New York then took her under her wing. I'll explain the (?) after the word orphan later.
Her success as a golfer, along with several rich white friends, helped her be accepted many places, yet she was still conscious of how some people perceived her. She made a point to keep away from places where others with darker complexions predominated, including Chinatown. Other than the different perspective, much of the book is the same as Fitzgerald's, including dialogue that is verbatim, although there are also changes, and the flashbacks concentrate on Jordan and Daisy, rather than Nick or Gatsby. One change is when Nick arranges for Daisy and Gatsby to reunite, in the new book Jordan is there too, whereas she was not in the original. Another change: the new book is speculative fiction; magic abounds. Many in high society, including Gatsby, are believed to have sold their souls to demons. A popular drink is demoniac, a wine infused with goat's blood and magic, which produces intense hallucinations. Jordan frequently sees ghosts, something she's experienced since her childhood in Louisville, perhaps even earlier in Vietnam, although she has no memory of that period. Jordan has a magical ability herself, one she first experienced on the day she met Daisy. I'd rather not elaborate on that since it would spoil several significant events. The first indication of the speculative elements comes just before the scene where Nick meets Jordan.
Fitzgerald's description of their meeting: "The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house."
In the new book, they actually had been flying around the house, thanks to a clay charm Daisy had purchased in Cannes a few years before. "…and when Daisy broke it to crumbling bits in her fingers, it released the basement smell of fresh kaolin clay mixed with something dark green and herbal. There was a gust of wind of a different kind, and then we were airborne, moving with languid grace along the high ceilings of her house and exclaiming at the strangeness and the secrets we found there."
I'm not sure when the speculation began that Nick Carraway might be gay, or at least bisexual. There are several clues in the original that might confirm that, or it's possible some words were being used in a different way, such as "gay" having the earlier connotation of being happy and carefree. In one instance Nick said he was not "intimate" with Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband, whom he had known at Yale. Maybe he just meant "close friends with," but he also made a later statement about running out of "single male friends," which begs the question of why that would be important to him. Nick also seemed to shy away from women on many occasions, including Jordan. Vo makes it very clear that Nick is bi, and so is Jay Gatsby. Jordan is as well, having had multiple girl and women lovers over the years, but Daisy was not one of them. She also had a strong attraction to Nick, at least for a while.
All of the posturing and social maneuvering of the rich, and the nouveau riche, is just as much in evidence in this new book as it was in the original, and those parts don't interest me. I was more intrigued with the challenges Jordan had faced all her life, both as a woman and a person of color, knowing little about her heritage, in fact not even being sure she was an orphan. Perhaps she had been kidnapped, or purchased on the black market, as a later dream/hallucination seemed to indicate. Maybe her real parents were still alive, which she might find out if she goes to Vietnam. The fictional Manchester Act has just been passed, which will accelerate deportations of undesirable immigrants. Her aunt tries to assure her she has nothing to worry about, due to the family's position, but Jordan is not as confident about that. She has been invited to travel to Shanghai with a new friend, one who shares her magical ability.
Nick Carraway was in a sense an outsider, from a respectable family but not a rich one, envious of Gatsby and Buchanan. But he's white and male, which is almost everything in that time and place. Jordan was the true outsider, no matter how much money and influence her adoptive family has. Her story is much more compelling than Nick's, especially when coupled with the new power of women given the right to vote, along with other progressive issues. There is very little about Fitzgerald's book I'd recommend, but the literary quality of Vo's writing, along with the feminist spin, and the diverse perspective, places The Chosen and the Beautiful high above Gatsby in my opinion. I don't care if anyone thinks I'm wrong about the original, Nghi Vo's take is highly recommended, and I can't wait to see what she writes next, including if she continues Jordan's story.
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