One expects to find novels like this on the shelves of a dream library, where all the great books that were never written reside — a tempting what could've been but wasn't. Fortunately for us, “The Chosen and the Beautiful” exists — a vibrant and queer reinvention of F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age classic “The Great Gatsby,” only this time we watch the tragedy unspool from Jordan Baker's perspective, Gatsby has literally sold his soul, and the speakeasy crowd occasionally adds a drop of demon's blood (demoniac) to their cocktails in order to really get a kick. I was captivated from the first sentence.
The story's shape is familiar: Jay Gatsby constructs a dazzling life for Daisy Buchanan, his lost love who is now married to the ultraconventional and philandering Tom. Daisy's cousin Nick Carraway takes a house near Gatsby's and becomes complicit in Gatsby's affair with Daisy. Jordan is awesome. There is much ado about midwestern values corrupted by city decadence. Eventually, big personalities and bigger desires come to a tragic conclusion; potential is squandered and dreams dissolve.
Like the source it pulls from, “The Chosen and the Beautiful” is saturated in longing — soaked through as thoroughly as strawberries left overnight in vodka. Jordan and Nick embark on an affair, but are pieces in the machinery of Gatsby's great plans. Jordan is an astute and knowing observer, a woman of wit and elegance and will, of proud and touchy independence. She knows her position in life to be precarious, an outsider who's always been inside. Jordan was "rescued" from Vietnam as a baby; the society she was raised in began to exclude her as soon as she was no longer young and cute enough to be a pet; she is tolerated and determined — comfortable with her fluid sexuality, but uncomfortable with her origins. Jordan places high stock in Daisy's friendship — of course, we know what happens to the stock market at the end of the 1920s, don't we?
In “The Chosen and the Beautiful,” there is sense of time running out. Something called "The Manchester Act," a xenophobic piece of law, is being discussed by Congress. Prohibition opposes liquor, infernalism, and foreignness in equal measure, conflating the latter two; a desperate energy to feel something makes for delirious nights. Jordan's adopted aunt, her protector, is weakening. Jordan's friends say she will never have to worry about these laws, she is different, but, well — Jordan is astute.
Gosh, but this is a heady piece of work. I began dog-earing pages of my galley whenever there was a striking image or moment, and soon the whole thing was in folds. Here's one: She said things, they lit up gold in the air, and then they fell to nothing like so much cigarette ash.
Magic exists in these pages just as dresses made of silk, glasses full of champagne, and houses blazing with electricity did in the real 1920s. It is a marvel, but feels attainable; if only one is chosen, if only one is beautiful. Gatsby's parties might have something to do with Hell; Jordan may be able to bring paper silhouettes to (temporary) life. But Vo's true focus is on character; and when it comes to character, Nghi Vo is a master. These characters! They really live. They are difficult and they deal with difficult things: self-disgust, indifference toward expectation, the damage expectation can do, inequal friendships, loneliness, heartbreak. She captures Gatsby's hypnotic, doomed charisma; her Nick transcends paper, an appealing mystery. The friendship between Jordan and Daisy is fascinating — and occasionally uncomfortable, or too comfortable, or dangerous. There is a scene between them I will think about for a long time. (I'd say more, but that would give away too much. I'll say this: Nghi Vo dips deftly into horror.)
Nghi Vo's “The Chosen and the Beautiful” makes me long to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby.” Not because this telling is less luminous or powerful or propulsive, but because I don't want to leave it — or Jordan. If I reread “Gatsby” with “Chosen” in my thoughts, it feels like clever way to cheat the enemy and glory of a very good book — the ending. Like I'll get the story twice. This is a wholly enthralling vision of the American Dream as observed and experienced by one suspended in a liminal place — accepted, but not really a part of the whole; apart, but not quite separate.
Vo gives us a dreamy, sharply-drawn glamour; a vibrant, penetrating exploration of character. “The Chosen and the Beautiful” is exactly enough — but why not indulge with a reread? And why not raise a glass to Nghi Vo, whose name on the spine of a book seems to mean that whatever the pages within hold will be superlative?
Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.
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