Mild spoilers ahead, though if you’ve read The Great Gatsby…not so much.
This was a novel I wanted to like much more than I actually did. The basic premise is a compelling one: what if Jordan Baker, a slight but intriguing character at the margins of The Great Gatsby, was actually an adopted Vietnamese orphan, whose wealth gains her entree into privilege circles without ever fully granting her access to the same privilege that characters like Daisy Buchanan enjoy?
Vo constructs a strong narrative voice for Jordan: attentive, observant, but also constantly a little aloof and reserved, holding herself apart from events because she knows she could also be pushed away. Reserve is not shorthand for coldness or stoicism, though: Jordan is a flapper and she partakes of drink, drugs, and sex as readily as any of the other characters might, in part because there’s often a sense that disaster could be looming: an act that will restrict the immigration and freedom of Asians hovers constantly in the background. Why not seize pleasure while you can, before the world crumbles, especially since (and Vo keeps this firmly foregrounded in the novel, to its benefit) the world almost just did crumble in the spasms of World War I?
But what’s also woven into this story is not just Jordan’s change of ethnicity, or her queerness, but also magic, and for me, this was where the novel stumbled. Demons are real, demon blood is a popular and intoxicating liquor, and various people have access to various kinds of magic. Vo’s inclusion of this facet lets her craft some dizzyingly beautiful visuals, such as a moment where Jordan cuts a tiger out of paper and it comes to dazzling, fiery life, or when partygoers at Gatsby’s mansion dive into a pool and seem, for a moment, to transform into glittering, sinuous fish before they surface again. But it also turns subtle moments from Fitzgerald’s original work into thuddingly obvious plot points: obviously Gatsby had metaphorically sold his soul to become the rich playboy he became, but Vo has him literally sell his soul to a demon, and this adds…what, exactly? The magic turns subtext into text, but not in a way that adds fresh layers the way that Vo’s subtler twists and adjustments do.
And it’s a shame, because it leaves less time to explore facets of Jordan that are teased but left rather unresolved. At one point, Jordan realizes she is not the age she thought she was; she’s been passed off as being two or three years younger than she truly is for pretty much her whole life, by the Baker daughter who brought her back from Vietnam as baby (or…not so much of a baby). Why does this happen? Jordan does not explore it. There is a suggestion, too, that perhaps Jordan wasn’t really an orphan, but a child plucked from her family because Miss Baker wanted her (yikes, the privilege!), and again, Jordan just seems to let that thought float away as soon as it occurs to her. Similarly, Jordan’s athletic hobbies aren’t discussed at all, though being a pretty keen golfer playing in organized tournaments is one of her defining features in the original, so why golf? Why sports at all? what does this give to her uncertain, uneasy, but luxurious life? I found myself a touch frustrated by these aspects.
The Chosen and the Beautiful feels like a book in tension with itself, at times, its retelling of a classic in tension with its new layer of genre mystique, and in a way that flattens it, rather than casting new and exciting shadows over the story being retold. I’d love a Gatsby retelling; I’d love a novel about an infernal angle to the glittering, feverish 1920s; I don’t think I want these things in the same book, however.
I am curious to see what Vo does next; she’s got a knack for thrilling visuals and for dreamy prose that’ll absolutely enchant when paired with the right plot–this one just didn’t quite seem to be it.
A side note: I listened to this on audiobook and it’s also one where I wouldn’t mind hearing someone else’s crack at it: Daisy is read as being so breathy and dizzy that it grated a bit, especially when Vo gives her some layers of calculation to go with her emotional volatility.