Book Review: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful – Nghi Vo (Tordotcom, 2021)

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.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo”

    1. It is a great concept and I could see what the author was aiming for with the magic realism. But when I find myself questioning its probability as I read, that’s usually a sign something isn’t working.

  1. Oh this does sound good! I can barely remember the character of Jordan, which goes to show how little she was focused on in the original. I actually remember being struck by how careless all the characters seemed when I read Great Gatsby as a teen, maybe even…reckless would be a better term for how I felt they all acted. It’s been decades since I’ve read it though, maybe I just need to watch the movie haha

    1. I had the same thought re-reading it though I don’t think that struck me when I first read it as a teenager. What makes it such an interesting take here is that the author puts Jordan in a very precarious position so even though she’s as reckless as any of them, her motivations are very different. It’s been a few years since I saw it, but I feel like this book was also inspired by the recent Gatsby movie, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio.

  2. This sounded so good… until you mentioned magic realism, which I generally don’t like.
    Still, I’m adding The Chosen and the Beautiful to my list and am expecting to enjoy it enormously. Jordan is the perfect character to tell an alternate story to The Great Gatsby.

    1. I hope you do enjoy it! I felt the same way when I heard it was from her perspective. She’s the one character who even in the original seems sort of on the outside but still witnesses most of the action intimately.

  3. This sounds like a really great book! I loved The Great Gatsby and am intrigued to see that world through another character’s eyes.

    1. It is a very creative idea and Jordan’s a great character choice. If the concept sounds appealing to you then I think you will probably enjoy the books.

  4. It’s a shame that the magical realism didn’t quite work as it could. I must confess that I didn’t like The Great Gatsby at all when I read it about ten years ago, but sometimes I find that retellings give me a different perspective on the original work, and Jordan’s point of view is such an interesting one for this. I felt pretty sorry for her by the end of the book, even though she’s as awful as everyone else in it!

    1. Jordan is a great choice for this because she’s intimately present but always kind of on the outside in the original. And the idea of making her even more of an outsider by casting her as an Asian woman gives a lot of new angles to look at the story and the time through.

  5. I do love magical realism myself, but am hesitant when there is a largely white cast and one magical non-white person. I don’t read it a lot, but I do see it in the horror movies I so enjoy. Often, a haunting is explained with voodoo or hoodoo or the fact that the one black character is from New Orleans, or something like that. However, it didn’t stand out to me in a book like Like Water for Chocolate in which all the characters are Mexican and so is the author. Therefore, maybe Vo knew exactly what they were doing? I have no clue, to be honest.

    1. I was mostly ok with the magic realism until later in the book when it seems to be implied that Jordan has certain abilities because she is Asian. We see her do something no one else can but then later she meets other characters who are also Vietnamese and they have the same abilities. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to take that. I’m assuming from Vo’s name that she is of Vietnamese heritage so maybe it isn’t for me to be uncomfortable with this othering of the Asian characters but it didn’t sit well with me.

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