The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo
Published by Tordotcom
Publication date: June 1, 2021
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical, Literary
Your Local Book Store, Amazon
Wouldn’t you know it—as soon as I post my overlooked books of 2021 another slips in under the wire. I finished The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo Wednesday morning after my post went live. This marvelous novel is a retelling of The Great Gatsby but from the perspective of Jordan Baker, seen in the original story mostly as Daisy Buchanan’s sidekick. Now, she is Asian and queer, both of which leave her maneuvering through high society at its margins.
Vo doesn’t tamper with the bones of this iconic novel—Jay Gatsby is a mysterious man with money in love with Daisy, her husband Tom is a serial philanderer and everyone knows it, and Nick is the quiet neighbor next door helping to orchestrate Gatsby’s reentry into Daisy’s life. They all come together in a hellishly hot summer in mansions outside New York City. But in The Chosen and the Beautiful, it’s Jordan’s eyes that matter, that pierce the gilded veneer of a world where she tenuously fits because of family money and connections.
Jordan’s relationships throughout the novel are fleshed out, but most specifically with Daisy. A dazzling duo on the surface, Jordan is privy to Daisy’s darkest moments and secrets, but what she gains is less clear. With Nick she plays a game of hide and seek, each moving toward the other, then dashing away. And Jay lives in the novel’s margins except in the moments when Jordan’s laser focus passes over him.
When I looked at the famous Jay Gatsby, soul gone and some terrible engine he called love driving him now, I could see that for him, the world was always ending. For him, it was all a wreck and a ruin, and he had no idea why the rest of us weren’t screaming.
While the original structure of The Great Gatsby stands Vo explodes the decadent nature of the times and expands The Chosen into a surreal wonderland. She mingles the bacchanalian excess of lavish parties with demonic potions and sorcery. She also hones in on the very real misogyny and racism of the times. Tom Buchanan espouses ’family values’ and white supremacy views—calling Jordan Daisy’s “China doll” (she’s Vietnamese). The country is getting ready to pass an Act that will force the removal of “unwanted unworthies”, namely people of color from the country.
I sometimes have to issue a caveat with books I rate five stars because while I thought it was amazing others may not. In this case, if you prefer modern writers not tamper with classics then it would be wise to give the novel a pass. But if you delighted in the decadent visuals of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 movie The Great Gatsby then The Chosen and the Beautiful is an easy yes. Vo’s untrammeled imagination and luxurious and sharp writing rejuvenates the classic, making it fresh again.
This post contains affiliate links meaning if you click on a link and make a purchase, I get a small commission (at no cost to you).