The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

“He wanted something agreeable, something sweeter around the edges, but I was never very good at sweet.”

This is one of those rare cases where I ended up preferring a retelling to the original. I’ve only read The Great Gatsby once and at the risk of incurring the wrath & contempt of Fitzgerald aficionados, I did not much care for it. Not only does Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful give new dimensions to Fitzgerald’s characters but she also brings magic into the picture. In Vo’s retelling Jordan Baker is Vietnamese American, queer, and can dabble with magic. While she does move in the same rarefied circles as her friends, she knows that many doors are not open to her. She’s often treated as an ‘exotic’ attraction or made to feel as if she’s one of ‘good ones’. Jordan spends her days partying, drinking, visiting supernatural locales where she can make out with boys and girls alike. As with the original Jordan becomes embroiled in Gatsby and Daisy’s ‘doomed’ love affair.

“He had come to Gatsby’s party, he had eaten the food, he had fallen under Gatsby’s spell. It was already too late.”

While Vo imbues her version of this classic with plenty of original elements (which in my eyes improve the original), the storyline itself does stick to the one from The Great Gatsby. Personally, I wish Vo had strayed away from the original source more as I believe that this could have made the story more surprising (especially for those who are already familiar with this story). While at first, I did enjoy the magical aspect too it felt a bit shoehorned in, at times seeming largely forgotten by the narrative (so that when demons or whatnot are mentioned i would be like, say what now?).
These ‘criticisms’ aside I was dazzled by Vo’s utterly gorgeous writing. Her style reflects the glittering spaces in which these characters move in, but through Jordan’s eyes—someone who only superficially shares the privileges that the people she socialises with take so much for granted—we only glimpse it for what it truly is, a pretty facade. Vo’s descriptions about this society are certainly sumptuous. Readers will be able to picture with ease the dresses, people, and environments that populate Jordan’s world. I loved the almost palpable tension between the various characters, their shifting alliances and small betrayals will make us wonder who is exactly playing who. Vo’s Jordan is far more nuanced than Fitzgerald’s one, and I appreciated her insights into the so-called 1920s American elite.

“What a broken, brittle people, I thought”

I actually found Vo’s Nick and Daisy far more sympathetic in this retelling. While Vo doesn’t sugarcoat their behaviour or attitudes, she’s also willing to be empathetic towards them.
The novel’s biggest strength lies in Vo’s writing. I know I have already said so but it is truly beguiling. There was something really aesthetically pleasing about her prose.
The ending felt a wee bit rushed and I think that this novel could have been easily longer. Anyway, if I ever think of Gatsby & Co. again I won’t be thinking of Fitzgerald’s ones (sorry, not sorry). Vo’s portrayal of obsessive love is truly on point. I can’t wait to read whatever Vo writes next. If you enjoy books by Libba Bray, Catherynne M. Valente, and or Cat Winters, you should definitely give The Chosen and the Beautiful. There is drama, one or two heartbreaks, bedazzling parties, and a sprinkle of magic. Vo’s characters are a perfect blend of charming and unappealing (one second you will find yourself liking them, the next you will want to throttle them) and her writing is next levels of morgeous.

my rating: ★★★½

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