Book Review: The Chosen and the Beautiful


Nghi Vo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

published: 1st June 2021
spoilers? nope

Goodreads

Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.

Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society―she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.

But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.

Galley provided by publisher

No one is more disappointed than me about this turn of events. I rated both of Nghi Vo’s novellas five whole stars. I really thought I would love this book equally. Instead — perhaps a little predictably, I’ll admit — my dislike of The Great Gatsby won out.

A little background first as to why I hate Gatsby quite so much, though. And it primarily comes down to studying it to death at GCSE (8 years ago — this will be important). I just hated the damn thing so much, and it didn’t help that I forced myself to read it ten times so that I knew it well enough in the exam to know when everything happened and where to find supporting quotes.

So, back to The Chosen and the Beautiful.

I think my major problem here was that the story tracked incredibly close to the original. I know, I know — it’s a retelling! you cry. But there’s levels to this. A retelling can be very loose, where entire plotlines change slightly. Or it can keep as close to the original as this one.

Brief interlude here to say: if you have read Gatsby but don’t remember it well enough and are thinking of rereading, don’t. I found that, knowing the story as well as I did, it took all the tension out of it. I knew exactly what was going to happen and it didn’t work well. If you haven’t read Gatsby and are wondering if you should, I would say read the first paragraph or so of the Wikipedia summary, or read the blurb. Enough to get you an idea of what the book is about (because you do get thrown straight in with this, and I can see it being confusing), but don’t read anything about the ending. Let this be a surprise for you.

But back to my point. The fact that this was a strict retelling (barring one or two aspects) worked against me here because, despite last reading Gatsby 8 years ago, I still knew it well enough to be able to spot when scenes, and even exact lines of dialogue, were lifted from it. Now, I don’t mean to frame this as an inherently bad thing — if you think about Pride and Prejudice retellings, a lot start with a riff on the opening line of that — but my problem was it threw me straight out of the story and into hating Gatsby over again as a 15 year old. Again, on this, your mileage may vary. I felt that the story was at its best when it distanced itself from directly retelling, but it always came back to it.

In addition to this, one of the major selling points for me on this book — the fantastical aspect — seemed sort of limited to adding a different kind of flavouring to the book. In the sense that, now it’s a historical fantasy, but that doesn’t really change the plot in any meaningful way. Again, I think this is a personal point because you mightn’t mind that about it. I did. Because, like I said, it comes back to predictability. If the magical aspect had had the effect of changing the way the story went, then I think I would have appreciated it more. As it was, I didn’t feel as though it added anything — there were long passages that went by without mention of them, and I neither really felt like the world was any different for it, nor really missed it.

But. If you are not plagued by a hatred of Gatsby, combined with an unfortunately good memory for almost all parts of it, then you will enjoy this book. Nghi Vo is clearly an accomplished writer and is able to mimic seamlessly F. Scott Fitzgerald in one respect, while also improving on his writing (it was so much less pretentious and more accessible than his). That is, if you don’t know which lines are his and which not, you will hardly notice. Honestly, Nghi Vo’s writing and the twists she put on the characters is what kept me going. While I couldn’t enjoy this enough to rate it over three stars, I did still like it. And I would still recommend it (unlike The Great Gatsby).

All of which to say that, unless you have an equal hatred of The Great Gatsby, I think you will love this book. And if you enjoyed Nghi Vo’s novellas already, you will especially love it.

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