Good morning and happy Monday, bibliophiles! I had a restful weekend filled with lots of reading, so my introverted heart is delighted. This review is fresh off the press since I just finished the book on Saturday. Evidently, I couldn’t wait to discuss.
Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.
Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society—she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.
But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.
Nghi Vo’s debut novel The Chosen and the Beautiful reinvents this classic of the American canon as a coming-of-age story full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess, and introduces a major new literary voice.
Overall rating: 4/5
Genre: Historical fiction, fantasy, LGBTQ+ fiction
Read if you loved: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Content warnings: Abortion, racism, domestic violence/abuse, car accident, suicide, murder
The second I heard that Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is a queer, Asian, magical retelling of The Great Gatsby, I knew I had to read it. And it is just as good as it sounds. What a way to kick off my Pride month reading, because this had everything I wanted and more.
If you loved The Great Gatsby, this is a must read. Written in beautiful lyrical prose, Vo’s story immerses you in the glittery Long Island Jazz Age from the very first page. It is entirely transformative; as someone who often has trouble visualizing descriptions from books, this was no difficulty with the author’s vivid imagery, so tangible in a way few books achieve. It was such a pleasure to read every line since the craftsmanship and attention to detail is so apparent. There is the added element of magical realism in this story, but it is done with soft-handed subtlety which in no way overpowers the heart of the text. Instead of becoming a core part of the world-building, as fantasy elements often do, it supplemented the story in a way that felt both natural and open to interpretation. Who knew The Great Gatsby needed a magical LGBTQ+ bar? After reading this, it seems only fitting. If anything, I wish we got a little more of an explanation on some of the fantastical additions to the story, but the mystery was half the fun, so I can argue both for and against the need for clarity.
Then there’s the entirely new lens through which we get to experience The Great Gatsby. The Chosen and the Beautiful is told through the lens of Jordan Baker, who in this retelling is a Vietnamese immigrant who has only ever known America as her home. This allows Vo to weave in themes of rising anti-immigrant sentiment as well as fetishization of “exotic” races. Again, she achieves this with impressive nuance, creating a powerful coming-of-age narrative that is more befitting of today’s societal dialogue while remaining faithful to its iconic muse. Reading about Daisy, Nick, Tom, and of course, Gatsby himself, through this Jordan’s eyes was also mesmerizing, and has me wanting to reread the original so desperately. Since it has been a while, I will withhold commentary on comparisons, but I will say that it all felt so right. Vo also leverages modern acceptance of more risqué content, so if you have ever wanted to see The Great Gatsby‘s evident sexual tension realized in text, this is the book for you 😉.
I would recommend this to all lovers of retellings and reinventions. It brings enough novelty to the table while leaving the source material entirely recognizable, demonstrating both respect as well as desire for elevation of content. This is a slower read, but it is so beautifully written that I had no issues with the pacing. Sometimes it is challenging to have a slower book when readers are well aware of the overarching plot, so that might be my one warning for those who wish for faster storytelling. What are some of your favorite retellings? What do you enjoy in retellings? Let me know in the comments below!