Rating: 4.75 stars
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Though she thinks the name “hangs oddly” upon her, Jordan grows up as a Louisville Baker. It is a name that gives her wealth and access to society. Daisy is a part of that society and the two form a bond over a bit of paper magic. Though time and distance change how close Jordan and Daisy feel, they are not enough to sever their connection entirely. Perhaps this fond recollection of her childhood friend makes Jordan amenable to spending much of the summer of 1922 in Daisy’s company. Jordan gets far more than she bargained for, however, when she gets tangled up in the affairs of Daisy’s neighbor—a supremely wealthy man named Jay Gatsby.
It was just a party, albeit a fabulously well turned out one, where Jordan meets Nick Carraway. He seems dull and overly attached to his midwestern roots for the cosmopolitan Jordan, but something about him draws her to him. And through him, to Gatsby as well. The latter sees Nick and Jordan as a means to bring Daisy to him. Despite initial misgivings, Jordan agrees to help. She might actually end up falling for Nick in the process. Except, of course, for the way Nick and Gatsby seem drawn together like magnets, the fact that Daisy is married, and the fact that Gatsby has literally struck the worst kind of deal just to make him a man materially worthy of a socialite. With her social world beginning to rip apart at the seams, there is a growing political movement across the country that just may drive Jordan to leave it all behind.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo is a retelling of The Great Gatsby. The time and place, 1920s New York, as well as the main and supporting characters all recall the classic tale of love turned obsession and the barriers even the wealthiest class faces. The narration, however, has shifted away from Nick and falls upon Jordan. In Vo’s story, Jordan came to be in America thanks to a couple of missionaries who, as was explained to Jordan, “rescued” her from Vietnam. Through Jordan, the story is reimagined with two rich themes not present (to the best of my fuzzy recollection) in the original. The first was magic and the second was race relations.
The theme of magic was delightfully subtle to me. At first, I just accepted the seemingly fantastical as a stylistic device. What turned out to be literal magic has the quality of superb creative license in the prose. Yet as I read further, I gradually came to appreciate that the book contains an undeniable element of the paranormal. The ghosts Jordan mentions in the Baker home are actual ghosts. The way a paper cut out of a dragon ferociously dive-bombs Jordan is a real threat to her. Magic seemed to permeate the world and I was delighted with how it shot through the story, sometimes just a fact of the world, sometimes on stunning display. The book’s signature liqueur—demoniac—is much the same. It is introduced early on and in a wholly blase manner. The drink has infernal origins that foreshadow a bigger connection to the plot. Unlike the ubiquitous libation the characters frequently imbibe, this twist in the plot leaves plenty of room for readers to interpret it in different ways.
Race issues also filter through the text. There is the tenuous relationship Jordan has with immediate members of the family that “adopted” her from Vietnam. Her adoptive father seems to often point out that he doesn’t blame Jordan for the fact that his wife (Jordan’s adoptive mother) died soon after their mission to Vietnam ended…as if a mere toddler could somehow have any blame. Daisy’s husband also rails against non-caucasian people and their values being chipped away. But more than any individual characters, the idea of racism takes on a more sinister quality towards the end of the book in the form of the Manchester Act, an exclusionary law. This spectre of legal discrimination gets raised only towards the end, but I thought it dovetailed with the tragic end of the classic Gatsby tale marvelously well. It seems odd, but I thought this displacement might be a chance for Jordan to regroup after having two significant relationships in her life basically terminated.
Finally, I would say Vo did a lovely job picking and choosing who, how, where, and when to show off the queerness of the cast. Jordan comes across as clearly bisexual; her off-page dalliances and intrigues seem to feature women, but she warms up to Nick in such a bittersweet way. When Nick and Gatsby are introduced basically at the same time at one of Gatsby’s party, I started carrying a little torch for them. The details of their romantic and/or sexual connection are both overt (i.e. you know they have sex) and covert (why are they sexually involved and how involved are they really).
Overall, The Chosen and the Beautiful is a stunning story. Fans of the original will surely be pleased with this retelling. I thoroughly enjoyed the paranormal elements. I also rather liked how the narrator in this retelling feels so much more integral to the action than I remember the narrator being in the original. Jordan is very much a part of the action—she is the center of it all, really. The intrigue Gatsby represents, the romance Nick seems to offer, the hedonism Daisy brings all show us different aspects of the complex and enjoyable lead character that Jordan is.