Author: Nghi Vo
Release date: 1 June 2021
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Fantasy
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 and Asian, a Vietnamese adoptee 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.
I have to admit – it had been a long time since I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and my familiarity with the book had become rusty. With that said, though, I was excited when I heard of Nghi Vo writing a re-imagining of the book, with Jordan Baker at its centrepiece as a queer, Vietnamese adopted woman. Marketing further flamed the hype with promises of magic, infernal pacts, and elemental mysteries. Naturally, I had high expectations for The Chosen and the Beautiful.
Did it deliver? Stay tuned to find out.
The Chosen and the Beautiful is a retelling of the American classic The Great Gatsby, reimagining its breakout character Jordan Baker as a queer, Asian woman who had been adopted from northern Vietnam (many in the book call it “Tonkin”). Like its source material, The Chosen and the Beautiful is set in 1920s America – particularly 1920s New York where glittering excess is the norm, and magic lurks amidst its drama and mysteries.
There are so many things to love in this book. This is the first work of Vo’s I’ve reviewed, and I’d been enamored with her writing. Luxurious, sexy, and decadent, her prose flowed like honey that I could not stop devouring – I’d finished the novel in about three hours. Vo’s luscious writing creates an atmosphere so seductive and sensual one would simply find themselves absorbed in the glimmer within.
Vo’s version of Jordan Baker is one of acerbic wit and fascinating charm as the book’s leading protagonist. Especially adept with reading people and social surroundings with a graceful sharpness, she presents herself with a bold and fun flair. Underneath the charm, however, lies a woman also grappling with her chronic unease, never feeling fully home. Her narrative of self-exploration and growth to true confidence as she navigates her own relationships, her heritage, and life as a socialite make for one hard not to root for.
The central characters in the original The Great Gatsby are also given more in-depth explorations that breathe new life to these familiar characters. Daisy’s backstory is given new sides and depths that make for a more complicated, if not slightly terrifying portrayal. Nick, the narrator for Fitzgerald’s original work, is examined by Jordan inside out; and his personality and role in the story is revealed on a new light. Gatsby, the eponymous central figure in the original, comes across as more opaque and sinister in his quest to prove himself a worthy suitor for Daisy yet also heartachingly sincere. Their relationships to Jordan and each other are explored, examining and revealing new, interesting relationship and power dynamics. Love so easily burns, that it easily turns to obsession and its poison is sometimes left hidden. On the other hand, it too can be something fragile, something that needs to be tended to with much care in order to stay alive. Vo’s writing in this aspect is so rich, layered, and complex that even I still have a hard time unpacking it entire.
The Chosen and the Beautiful retains the hedonistic and liberation of the Jazz Age, and gives it a new dimension. The base cautionary tale in The Great Gatsby persists in how the wealthy engage with black magic, demons, and other cultural magic in their pursuit of pleasure – often in expense of others, especially the less powerful and people of colour. On the flip side, as Jordan and other characters are queer, The Chosen and the Beautiful also critiques the social restrictions and potentially deadly consequences of self-expression in the 1920s – especially for women.
Vo’s choice to cast Jordan as an adopted Vietnamese woman also works in her benefit: through Jordan’s eyes, part of the high society yet slightly apart due to her heritage, we see the intersection between class disparity, race, and white supremacy in which the themes lightly threaded in the original—hedonism, white supremacy, and xenophobia—are given a fuller, more realised depiction. Vo’s expansion also serves to explore the darker, less ideal undercurrents of the Jazz Age particularly for people of colour, immigrants, and queer people. Being an adopted woman of Vietnamese heritage, Jordan’s dazzling life as a socialite is constantly undermined by her status as an immigrant – always seen as an exotic attraction by her peers and somehow a “free pass” for casually racist remarks. While her wits serve her well enough to pass every social relatively unscathed, her privilege as a socialite is put in stark contrast with the impending Manchester Act—a fictional act mirroring the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924/Johnson-Reed Act including the Asian Exclusion Act and National Origins Act—designed to keep “unwanted unworthies” out and repatriate those who’d “overstayed their welcome.” Vo even critiques the “white saviour” complex in Jordan’s adoption and the blase reaction of some characters to the news: being ignorant of the malicious, xenophobic undercurrents and thinking that everything could be solved with simple solutions and money. Vo’s writing had been so enthralling just as Gatsby’s parties, I found myself drawn in the drama Jordan had found herself entrenched in and forgetting the real, urgent issues facing Jordan’s way and everyone like her in the early 1920s. Once the party glamour and its golden leaves flake off, the grave reality sets in and it sets in quick for everyone involved.
I loved the magical realism in The Chosen and the Beautiful. Vo’s touch of magic is subtle, yet it adds a vitality to both the deceptively-dangerous shimmer of the high society. Major themes that permeate this novel include the desire to love and to be loved and the lengths to which people will go for satisfy that desire. There’s a palpable sexual and romantic tension in all the characters (and yes, I do mean everyone. Not Tom, though), and magic both innocuous and infernal serve to underline the nature of their users’ desire. In Jordan’s case, her heritage, her paper magic, and the matters of the heart remain superficially linked for most of story; but a twist at its end inextricably links them in a beautiful ode to her desire and her heritage. The Chosen and the Beautiful also explores the different faces people present to the world, and how this affects perception. Magic too, adds to this theme with a short but impactful scene that affects Jordan’s relationship with her heritage and her paper magic.
For the most part, Vo’s creative decisions had worked for her benefit. Contrary to my expectations for a dramatic reinvention, however, Vo follows her source material rather faithfully in terms of main plot – perhaps a little too faithful for my liking. I’d been hoping for more liberties being taken, more discussions as to how magic and its cultural aspects, how it affected the high society, and the infernal forces at play. As I’d elaborated above, I enjoyed the liberties Vo did take with The Chosen and the Beautiful, but I definitely wished that her original ideas had more impact on the main narrative than they did so that I could truly see her creative freedom diverging from Fitzgerald’s source material.
Still, Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful had been a wonderful reimagination of the classical American canon, with powerful explorations of Asian diaspora experience and an equally strong queer narrative. Obviously, what this book had aimed to be was simply a bit too different with my expectations; and this disparity left me to wonder if having constantly consumed epic, sprawling fantasies had influenced my expectations to the point of bias against fantasies that didn’t quite fit the bill.
I’d developed a “taste,” if you will, for this certain of flavour and Vo’s new book was of another kind. I wouldn’t quite say that one should “temper” their expectations, per se—the term just feels too reductive considering the the book’s strong showing. Rather, I’d say that recalibrating expectations would do you many favours coming to this book especially if you’ve read too much of one flavour of fantasy.
The Chosen and the Beautiful was definitely a more low-key fantasy than what I usually read, but I cannot deny that I was bedazzled by this new version of Jordan Baker.
New York has been infused with bottomless magical fever that reveal the depths of desire both innocuous and darkly poisonous in a sweltering, familiar drama. Daubed in gold and dipped in honey, Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful delivers a smooth and clever reimagination of an American classic tangling race, sexuality, magic, and class. Nghi Vo’s creative choices clearly serve to her benefit, adding more depth and fuller dimensions. The sumptuous decadence in her writing intensely seduces readers to a thrall from start to finish, the full gravity of the Jazz Age’s unsavoury realities delivering a clear, quick gutpunch as once the party glamour dies and the gold drips its last luxury.
Thank you to Tordotcom for giving me a galley of The Chosen and the Beautiful to read! I received a review copy in exchange for an honest review.