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I will be completely honest—I really do not care very much for The Great Gatsby. This book, however, far exceeds its source material (*gasp* sacrilege!). This is everything I want out of a retelling of a classic novel, and I am so glad I read it.
Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful tells the familiar story of The Great Gatsby through the eyes of cynical flapper Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend and Nick’s temporary love interest. The differences are not limited to a shift in perspective, however. Vo’s Jordan Baker, now a Vietnamese adoptee and a queer woman, leads us through a still extravagant West Egg, now full of real magic and deals with devils. There, she introduces us not only to Vo’s invented magic but also the queer and Vietnamese circles that the original novel could never have ventured into.
Jordan always struck me as the most interesting person in Gatsby, and in Vo’s hands, she is even better. Multiple times, I had to stop reading so I could tell someone else what Jordan just said. She was real and she was clever, and I loved that Vo let her be both mean and sympathetic. The characters here are all flawed, but I could understand them (sometimes more than the original), even if I could not forgive all of them.
And the magic! There are few things that excite me more than a well-conceived historical fantasy, and boy does this book deliver. I loved all of the little details that fit magic and devils into familiar history. Mentions of fads like a single black nail, intended to suggest one had sold one’s soul, never take center stage in the novel but instead form a solid backdrop, beautifully blurring the lines of fantasy and history. While in lesser hands, the magic could have been little more than a prop or distraction, Vo made everything feel totally natural.
No less magical was Vo’s prose. She has such a way of crafting a sentence—the word that comes to mind is delicious. Flowing and vivid, every word creates an atmosphere as magical as the world the characters inhabit, and not a phrase was wasted. Even if I had not loved the rest of the book as much as I did, I think it would have been worth it for the writing style alone.
Going into this book, I of course knew it was Great Gatsby with magic, from the perspective of queer, Vietnamese adoptee Jordan Baker, but I did not realize just how refreshing it would feel to actually read this until I started. Whether or not you are a fan of the original novel, Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful is a retelling so fresh it almost feels a disservice to recommend it based only on its merits as a retelling. This beautiful book is worth reading for anyone looking for a clever historical fantasy and a compellingly flawed queer heroine.