The Great Gatsby (1925) has been described as the quintessential American novel. The Jazz Age classic, with its themes of American optimism and disillusionment, has captured the popular imagination since its publication. Yet, while it explores the consequences of class and money, it neglects to give voice to marginalized persons—persons like Nghi Vo’s reimagined Jordan Baker, who is queer, adopted, and Vietnamese. In The Chosen and the Beautiful, her debut novel and magical retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, Vo reinvents the Great American Novel by giving voice to the silenced and the oppressed, and peeling back the gilded layers of history to reveal the unbearable loneliness concealed beneath the glimmering varnish.
While Jordan takes over as the narrator, the story’s guise is otherwise familiar. Seeking to reunite with his lost love, Daisy Buchanan (once Daisy Fay), Jay Gatsby reinvents himself as a wealthy socialite. Nick Carraway moves in next door. He and Jordan become entangled in the former lovers’ story, even as they themselves become lovers. In this, Vo stays true to Fitzgerald’s classic. From there, she extrapolates from the source material by tweaking a few details (such as Jordan’s ethnicity), exploring new angles (such as the lives of queer people and people of color in twentieth-century America), and making canon implied details (such as Nick’s sexuality). Readers need not familiarize themselves with The Great Gatsby to appreciate The Chosen and the Beautiful. But if they do, knowledge of the source material will only grow their regard for Vo’s craft and imagination in reinventing the story to flesh out the American experience, from city decadence and speakeasies, to the Cendrillon and the Lyric, to Willets Point and Chinatown.
Like Nick, Jordan is an observer, out of place, despite all her efforts, in the dazzling world of beaded dresses, electric lights, and liquor magicked fresh from ancient vintners and brewers. Although she is nominally a Louisville Baker, the name has always hung oddly on her, as she was “rescued” from Vietnam as a baby. Her “exotic looks and faintly tragic history” (p. 78) make her an oddity, a curiosity, and a conversation piece, but never an insider. Her vulnerability makes her defensive and proud. Refusing to be exploited, she assumes a jaunty, disinterested posture and makes herself a permanent guest, taking what she wants and removing herself before she can be discarded. Her only indulgence is in loving Daisy since their girlhood days. She confesses, “There was nothing as uninteresting as something I couldn’t have” (p. 72), but the nonchalant words veil a longing to belong. Jordan’s concern with her image makes her an unreliable narrator. Unable to find acceptance as herself, she becomes a habitual liar, and her dishonesty reveals itself when she decides to feel a certain way, or chooses to respond in a certain manner, or describes how certain things appear to be, instead of confronting the truth.
Longing saturates the lives of the titular “chosen” and “beautiful.” Though Jordan grounds herself in the present with a planner that can’t see further than two weeks ahead, she longs for a world where she can look ahead, with some reliability, to the future, and she suspects that Nick might fill that place. Nick denies an interest in men while casting his gaze toward Gatsby. Gatsby cannot live in the present because he’s preoccupied only with looking back at the past and forward to the future, the times when Daisy was and will be his. And Daisy—Daisy, like water, cannot decide on her shape, except that she desires to be loved: by society, her family, Tom, Gatsby, Nick, Jordan. As her reality proves, however, love will never be enough for her.
But Daisy, and every other woman, will never be enough for the men in her life. At the novel’s start, Daisy and Jordan billow onto the scene “like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam, like a pair of young women in white dresses who had no cares to weigh them down” (p. 1). The innocent image presents the illusion of an insouciant existence, light and giddy like champagne bubbles, free of mortal concerns. But the dazzling veneer conceals the shackles of societal (read: patriarchal) expectations that weigh down a woman: she must beware which car she gets into, take care of an unexpected pregnancy, and resign herself to being “half of an equation when the male half could somehow continue as a whole without [her]” (p. 171). At the same time, she must be beautiful and charming and sweet, and it doesn’t matter at all what she says. Because of all the demands thrust upon her, Daisy, the perfect socialite, doesn’t live “just double lives. It’s triple, quads and quints” (p. 210). Nevertheless, she must remain faithful to her husband while forgiving him for his habitual “spree.” Thus, Tom can openly parade Myrtle Wilson as his girlfriend, and Gatsby can have relations with Nick, among others, but neither likes to share Daisy. When Gatsby pressures her to denounce ever loving Tom, she reveals, through her plea, the double standard for women: “If you can love more than one person at once, then why can’t I?” (p. 223)
Skirting around the tragedy of Gatsby’s doomed love is the threat of the fictional Manchester Act, a xenophobic piece of law reminiscent of the exclusion acts, which restricted Chinese immigration first to the United States (1882) and then to Canada (1923). At first, it’s a dinner topic among the friends of Jordan’s Aunt Justine, and anyways Jordan is different because she’s a Louisville Baker. But as the date for the vote to pass the Act draws closer, and her aging aunt (and protector), grows weaker, Jordan loses assurance in her identity. Eventually, she is forced to accept that “Louisville or not, Baker or not,” the Act affects her as a Vietnamese adoptee—and therefore, she “had better decide what it might do to [her] and what [she] would do about it” (p. 233). Through passing interactions with the Asian working class, Jordan learns about the cruelty lurking beneath the world she has chosen—a world that marks her as a China doll, a coolie, or a whore. In the process, she connects with her heritage of paper magic and begins to untangle her identity from the needs, demands, and expectations attached to her adopted name.
Through it all, sensual, evocative, decadent language intensifies the glamour and ruin of the twenties, the poetic prose testifying to Vo’s masterful command of language. This is most clear at Gatsby’s, where the clock stands at “just five shy of midnight the moment you [arrive],” a moon rises “up out of the Sound . . . round as a golden coin, and so close you could bite it” (p. 20), and shirts fly around “in a rush of crisp fabric, rising up towards the gray glass sky” (p. 159). There, in a world where mornings and hangovers and insatiable hungers do not exist, one can easily believe that “death doesn’t come to Gatsby’s” (p. 21). Yet, his mansion proves to be nothing more than a microcosm of the Gilded Age, for, beneath its opulent veneer, it reeks of desperation: “[e]verything was just a shade too bright, everyone just a little too brilliant to be borne” (p. 172).
At 260 pages, The Chosen and the Beautiful is a short novel, but it invites slow readings and re-readings: the reader will want to linger on the poetic beauty of the language and to ruminate on the thoughtful exploration of the glamour and opulence, romance and debauchery, isolation and desperation of the Gilded Age. Through keen social observation, Vo explores the consequences of loneliness—and the longing for an unattainable someone or something—on the chosen and the beautiful, none of whom are wholly good people and yet none of whom are wholly terrible people either, only uncertain people seeking a momentary respite from their uncertain lives.
In the end, whereas Fitzgerald’s Nick, disillusioned by Gatsby’s demise, searches for answers in the past, Vo’s Jordan succeeds in removing herself from the clutches of someone else’s story. Freed, she seizes, through a different outcome, hope and possibility.