A re-telling of The Great Gatsby from the perspective of Jordan Baker. This alone, as a blurb for a book, got my attention. Then throw in a Jordan Baker who is also an Asian immigrant and I was definitely intrigued.
The Chosen and the Beautiful is a fairly faithful re-telling of The Great Gatsby with an entirely new and different perspective. We get a new glimpse at many of the scenes in Fitzgerald’s famous story but also a look at the scenes we never got to see. Vo tells this story in first person narration, told by Jordan, so we see only what she sees and hear what she sees. Where Nick Carraway narrated for Gatsby, Jordan gives us a new look at the character and history of Daisy. As childhood friends, Jordan is perhaps the only person who has witnessed the entirety of Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship and knows who Daisy is and has been.
But this isn’t a simple re-telling of Daisy and Gatsby. Jordan is a complex character and we are also introduced more fully to the young woman we meet in The Great Gatsby, the one who always seems a little on the outskirts of things, a little secretive. A woman Nick could almost fall in love with but never quite does. Vo adds to Jordan’s character and creates a far more complex character for her by adding two key components: Jordan Baker is a Tonkin immigrant (more commonly known as Vietnam now) and she is queer. We learn of Jordan’s own history, of the woman who brought her from Tonkin as a very young child, of the stifled childhood she had, dressed up as an Asian doll. She has grown up in privilege and wealth but the older she gets, the more she sees how her path will diverge from her peers. In 1920s America, Jordan belongs nowhere. She has no ties to her Tonkin heritage but is constantly marked as an outsider in the only society she has ever known. Vo fleshes out the complexities of life for immigrants at the time by showing the growing tension of the Manchester Act, which threatens to send immigrants back to their birth countries, even ones like Jordan who have no home or family there. (Sadly, this sounds exactly like the struggles immigrants in America still face.)
Jordan’s outsider status gives her a clarity on the lives of the fabulously wealthy around here, even as she is drawn into their most intimate moments. In Fitzgerald’s book, Jordan accuses Nick of being careless and the carelessness of the characters was something that jumped out at me in my recent re-reading (review here) Vo offers us a Jordan Baker who cannot afford to be careless, who must calculate every choice because her status and safety are always tenuous. At the same time, Nick’s accusations of her dishonesty are seen differently too when you think of a young woman who is largely alone in the world, who could, at any moment, lose everything.
Vo also leans far more heavily into the excesses of the age, particularly in depictions of drinking and sexual relationships. Jordan is not the only character who moves between relationships with men and women and this is largely seen as acceptable, as long as kept out of public sight. Just as Tom’s affairs are secret but largely known, Jordan’s relationships with women are accepted but never spoken of. Vo also implies a much more darker history for Gatsby, a more nefarious reasoning behind his sudden and obscene wealth. Gatsby, however, is a side character here. An important one but never the focus of the novel and there is no concern for delving deeper into his past.
Where The Chosen and the Beautiful didn’t work as well for me was in its elements of magic realism. I’m a reader who loves magic realism but it needs to fit in the world of the story and have at least some sort of internal explanation. There are a few crucial scenes where Jordan is shown to have a special ability. This is integral to the plot and, in the end, to several of the characters themselves, but I never quite understood where or how these powers worked. The best explanation given seemed to be that Jordan’s abilities were innate to her as a person of Vietnamese heritage. This both didn’t make sense to me and seemed to only add to her othering. A sort of “magical Asian” trope, so to speak. As Vo herself is a writer of Asian descent, I hesitate to criticize this aspect but I would have liked to see these magical elements more firmly rooted in the world created here.
All together though, this was a bold and unique exploration of a classic novel. I loved the feminist turning of a book that focuses so heavily on men and thought Vo did an excellent job of using this famous story to explore new issues of sexuality and race. While I found that having re-read The Great Gatsby in recent months was helpful, I don’t think it would have been necessary. I would, however, recommend reading The Great Gatsby before The Chosen and the Beautiful.