What if Jay Gatsby literally sold his soul to a demon, in order to woo and win the love of Daisy Buchanan? With that one question, Nghi Vo ushers us into a strange, familiar, wonderful and terrifying world with her first full-length novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful (2021).
In a 1920s USA where magic is common and ghosts walk side by side with people, Vo introduces us to Jordan Baker, bosom friend of Daisy Fay Buchanan. Through Jordan’s eyes we see the story of Gatsby, a man doomed to destruction by his love for Daisy, from a different angle. Unlike the expository Jordan Baker character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, this Jordan, while she was raised wealthy and inherited money, is an outsider and always will be. She was adopted by the Bakers, from the country of Tonkin, or Vietnam.
The story starts with Jordan’s introduction to Nick Carraway, a distant cousin of Daisy’s, who has come east to New York after the war. The events in The Chosen and the Beautiful follow The Great Gatsby closely, but it’s not the same story, in large part because Jordan’s past, and her future, matter a great deal to us. I wanted to see what would happen with Jay and Daisy, but I deeply wanted to learn the secrets of Jordan’s legacy. And I really wanted her to do more than just survive.
This beautifully written book was frustrating in one way: I wanted to gulp it down, speed through it to see what happened next, what secret would be revealed, and I desperately needed to slow down and absorb the prose, which is both precise and lush. Whether it’s magical fireflies, the fluttering of Daisy’s hands, an oncoming storm, or the viscosity of a popular demonic liquor, details are vivid and important. The Chosen and the Beautiful demands a second read. Maybe “demands” isn’t the right word. Like Gatsby’s magical, hellish parties, like the demonic liquor everyone imbibes, the book seduced and beguiled me into wanting to read it again.
Vo takes on more than privilege and wealth; more than misguided love, in her telling. Racism isn’t even hidden, as in the background (but in plain sight) a law makes its way through Congress that will strip immigrants of their rights. Jordan describes the turning point in her own life, as her circle comes of age and the girls have their debuts:
Doors were closing against me that year… I could see patterns developing, growing up around me like the vines around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. There were things I could do and things I couldn’t, and girls who had been my friends in the years before cut me loose. Slowly but surely, I was being left off lists, pruned away as the girls of my class grew up and became gracious ladies.
And moments later she says,
…while I had been a delightful pet and mascot, I simply had no place beyond their girlhood days.
Jordan, the sharp, smart flapper with the ready comeback, who never met a drink she didn’t like, has been orphaned from her own culture and her own magic. The Baker family story of how she was adopted is a lie. Without knowledge, Jordan is easy to manipulate. Daisy stays friends with Jordan for what Jordan can do for her, a fact Jordan comes close to admitting out loud more than once during the story.
Playing opposite Jordan is Nick Carraway, a decent guy who seems a little off from the beginning, and the enigmatic party-host Jay Gatsby, with his glorious magical mansion and his endless soirees. In Gatsby, Jordan sees a predator, “A predator whose desires were so strong they would swing yours right around and put them out of true.”
Jordan is a savvy character, with a core of strength that she draws on when she faces Gatsby more than once, and must rely on in her final visits with Daisy. Vo’s Gatsby is more complicated than the original, although ultimately he makes the same mistakes. Vo’s Daisy is much more complicated than the original, her depths revealed in one terrifying scene in the woods behind her house. Fitzgerald’s book was about monsters, and so is Vo’s, but these two writers see monsters differently.
If you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, read it first, or at least a synopsis. The Chosen and the Beautiful is perfectly comprehensible without knowledge of the source material, but the book’s richness and Vo’s occasional digs (as when Jordan says Nick is good at telling other people’s stories) deserve to be recognized.
This book got under my skin, into my head and into my blood. It’s a five-star read that I will read again soon.