By Sharon Tran
A scintillating reimagining of “The Great Gatsby” with sharp, discerning Vietnamese American Jordan Baker as the female lead, Nghi Vo’s debut novel “The Chosen and the Beautiful” invites modern readers into a version of Fitzgerald’s New York that is at once comfortably familiar and dangerously alluring. Vo’s 1920s New York is one where cocktails can be made from demon’s blood and individuals can sell their souls for treasure worth the greatest price. These aspects of a new world remain a backdrop to the relationships that I once cared deeply about in “The Great Gatsby,” such as Nick and Gatsby’s relationship and most certainly Daisy and Gatsby’s as well. Vo, of course, takes things a step further — her novel convinces me that there were relationships not explored in the original that I perhaps should have cared more about, especially those that include Jordan Baker.
Jordan Baker is a smart choice for the heroine of Vo’s novel. In Fitzgerald’s original, she sits mostly on the sidelines but is welcomed onto the main stage enough times to plant seeds of intrigue that Vo adopts and nurtures into her own captivating and magic-wielding version of her. Vo’s Jordan is a multifaceted character who refuses to be easily, singularly or absolutely understood, lending herself as an interesting lens through which we can relive and reexamine a classic story. Outside of sweeping pro-golf tournaments, Jordan experiments with paper-cutting magic, grapples with people’s impositions on her identity as an adopted Vietnamese orphan and kisses enough people in New York City’s most exclusive clubs to keep high society talking.
Daisy and Gatsby also become case studies of Vo’s unique ability to detect the cracks in each character from her source material and consequently elicit their hidden desires and thoughts that bloom mesmerizingly on the page. When I first encountered Daisy in high school, I felt there was something dangerous lurking right under her surface, something unexplored through Fitzgerald’s telling. Vo affirms all my greatest fears and desires. The Daisy I imagined now matches the Daisy on the page: complicated, consuming and even monstrous at times.
Similarly, Vo’s reimagined Gatsby made me alert in anticipation each time he appeared on the page. Any encounter with Gatsby void of Daisy felt like entering a battle you knew you could not — and perhaps did not want to — win. This Gatsby embodies a charisma and magnetism so strong that you can’t help but wish you too could enter the halls of his mansion for a party or two, like the rest of New York’s old and new money.
Vo’s skills in her debut novel do not stop at her precise understanding and reinvention of these overly familiar characters. Through her smooth prose and expert control of tone, Vo constructs an atmosphere that places you directly inside each house or mansion in the story. But be wary: these are places where you need to look around corners before you slip into a room, because you may not be welcome — or worse: you may not be ready for what you see.
The plot of “The Chosen and the Beautiful” unfurls at a slow, steady pace most suitable for the humid New England summer heat that pervades the story. However, this sort of pace is far from non-engaging. I read the book in two days and was only stopped from continuing it all in one sitting because of reality’s insistent demands for my work and attention. I was loath to put the book down because to do so was to break the enchantment Vo put me under after so many pages of worldbuilding and lyric seduction. The story certainly breaks from its steady amble and picks up its pace near the end of the book, where everything building up to this point must crest and flood to an ultimate end. However, by the time you get there, you’ll wish you had more time in this glittering world that Vo has built.
In a way, Vo’s debut novel is a treatise on how beauty, in all of its forms, is always complicated and never easy. Her most beautiful and alluring characters are often the ones most haunted by phantoms that come in the form of desire or restless pasts. If you’re looking for a summer read that will sweep you away to a New York City of the Roaring Twenties where gold, deals and magic make the air, be sure to keep an eye out for “The Chosen and the Beautiful”’s release on June 1, 2021.