FICTION: The Chosen and the Beautiful (2021)

As a Vietnamese fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald (I preferred his other novels, Tender Is the Night and especially This Side of Paradise, but my middle school English teacher said I was too young when I read Gatsby), I couldn’t resist Nghi Vo’s 2021 retelling of The Great Gatsby from the perspective of a queer Vietnamese Jordan Baker and with the addition of magic and demons.

I had remembered Jordan as a golfer, but here, we never see her compete or practice on the green. She is instead a socialite, her energy spent on dishing out verbal parries and closely reading her interlocutors. She keeps a mental ledger of last names, family lineages, credentials. Everyone is having sex with everyone, and there is a blasé air to the promiscuity, which is what makes Gatsby and Daisy’s affair stand out in its naïveté.

Jordan’s one-note cynicism can be wearying. As Gatsby gives Daisy a tour of his mansion, Jordan criticizes the wonder in his voice, then tells him, “Just because I don’t like you doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.” Nick, exasperated, elsewhere asks Jordan, “Do you care about ANYthing?” She often resembles the way she describes the light at Gatsby’s, how “it burned without illuminating or warming.” However, we learn that her nature is the product of a loveless upbringing, having been plucked from Vietnam by a Louisvillian who then passed away. Probably the most compelling scenes in the book are when she interacts with other Asian people for the first time, allowing her to put a name to her vague feeling of difference, and when she learns to command the supernatural power that is the birthright of Asian folk.

Nghi Vo’s writing is lovely; for example, one of my favorite sentences goes, “Some love could survive being put on show like that. But almost every kind of love that I knew would wither through it— curl up from shame and exposure, and die.” The audiobook’s Asian-American narrator, Natalie Naudus, utterly excels at voice acting, imbuing Jordan with tart sass and a chilly world-weariness while bringing Nick beautifully to life as observant and wry. The Chosen and the Beautiful is a worthwhile reincarnation of an old classic from a fresh perspective.

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