Adapting classic works of literature is always challenging, not least because the adapting author must decide how much novelty is appropriate. Too much and fans will shun it out of pique; too little and they’ll shun it out of disinterest. This dilemma is only heightened when the book in question is as widely read as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And yet, in The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo perfectly strikes that balance of the new and the familiar.
Retold from the perspective of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, amateur golfer Jordan Baker—here recharacterized as a wealthy Louisville missionary family’s adopted Vietnamese daughter—the familiar contours of Fitzgerald’s tragedy are warped with a hazy dash of demonic and earthly magic. The result is an utterly captivating series of speakeasies, back-seat trysts, parties both grand and intimate and romances both magical and mundane, all spiraling through a miasma of Prohibition-era jingoism and entitlement toward its inevitably tragic conclusion.
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Vo is a remarkable writer whose talent for reviving Fitzgerald’s style of prose is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke channeling Jane Austen in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But it is Vo’s additions to Gatsby’s original plot that truly shine. By foregrounding Jordan’s and Daisy’s perspectives rather than Nick’s, she recasts a story about the consequences of male overreach as one about the limitations of female and non-white agency. This is further complicated by Jordan’s inability to remember anything of her childhood in Vietnam before she was brought to Kentucky. She sees herself as American, the daughter of the Louisville Bakers, but neither her white peers nor the Vietnamese immigrants she meets agree with her.
For both Jordan and Daisy, magic can offer some surcease, but only to a point. In the first scene of the book, for instance, when the two women go flying through Daisy’s house with a magic charm, they must return demurely to the couch when Daisy’s husband comes home. Throughout the book, the women’s choices are constrained by those of the men surrounding them. Even magic, whether a charm, an enchantment or a potion (which are always consumed as cocktails), can only win them a brief reprieve from the decisions others make for and about them.
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In this alternate America, the fear of demons is consistently paralleled with the fear of immigrants. Magic is unavoidable in Vo’s West and East Egg, but although it may be consumed by those at the center of American society, it emanates from those at its periphery. To its consumers and connoisseurs, it is valuable precisely because it is foreign, while those who create and practice it are ostracized and hated for precisely the same reason. The fetishization of earthbound magics is reminiscent of the real-world fascination with traditions like folk medicine, and even demoniac, the psychotropic beverage derived from demon’s blood that several characters drink, could represent any number of exoticized vices prized by the American wealthy. There are lessons here for those of us living in the mundane reality of the 21st century, just as there are in Jordan’s commentary on the ways her agency is constrained as a Vietnamese American woman.
The Chosen and the Beautiful, like the novel it retells, is as much a tragedy as it is a social commentary. The reader will likely know how Daisy’s story ends, but Jordan is in the spotlight here, and her story is just as captivating, if not more so. By putting her in the foreground, and highlighting the voice among Fitzgerald’s core characters that was the least heard, Vo has transformed The Great Gatsby utterly.