Cover Image: The Chosen and the Beautiful

The Chosen and the Beautiful

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Member Reviews

This book is a surreal dream someone had after they fell asleep reading The Great Gatsby. Filled with magic, queer people, and grappling with social issues, this book fills out the skeleton of Fitzgerald’s work and turns the familiar story into something richer and deeper. With the kind of perspective only being a century removed from an era can provide, Vo imagines a story where the characters are more alive and more compelling than originally envisioned. With this year’s crop of Gatsby-inspired books publishing as the original work finally enters the public domain, be sure not to miss this retelling of the tale that is both beautiful and damned.
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Nghi Vo continues to stun with her beautiful prose, excellent exploration of themes, a well crafted main character and an atmosphere that felt like being submerged in 1920s New York.

The Chosen and the Beautiful is a Great Gatsby retelling, and I think fans of the original will adore this book. Admittedly I haven't read or know the story of the original, and I do think this affected my enjoyment of the story. I was far more invested in Jordans (the narrator) story than the story unfolding with Gatsby/Daisy/Tom which we see through Jordan's eyes. To my knowledge it follows pretty closely to the original, however there was some subtle magic woven in and although I would have liked more of this throughout the story, there was a twist at the end that felt like a beautiful ode to Jordan's heritage and desire to be loved. 

The greatest strength of this novel (in my opinion) is Nghi Vo's luscious writing and enthralling atmosphere. The book is an experience that feels like being a fly on the wall amongst New Yors elite set, which in some ways is what Jordan is. My favourite scenes in the book were in the gay night club called the Cendrillion, I loved how sexuality was explored in this book, and that Jordan was bisexual. I was sort of expecting a sapphic relationship from the advertising which wasn't really what we got, but I still loved the representation, especially a bisexual woman being with a (very heavily implied to be) bisexual man. This book felt very queer, it just had vibes haha. 

Exploring the desire to love and be loved, this book (and I think the original) is a look at the different lengths people will go to for love, and through each of the characters we see a different level of devotion and the lengths they are willing to go to enact that desire. Vo's writing really enhanced this theme, bringing to life the palpable sexual and romantic tension between all our characters. We also look at the different faces people present to the world, and how this affects perception, I loved how the magic added to this theme.
I also liked how elements of racial injustice in history were added, including the Manchester Act and Jordan's experience as a Vietnamese woman in the 1920s in an unwelcoming America. This added both important history as well as relevent current socio-political themes. 

One thing I didn't love was the flashbacks, probably because these were added to give more of Daisy/Gatsby story and I felt they were taking away from the more interesting current timeline. I also really just hated Daisy haha but Jordan is very much obsessed with her so unfortunatly we see a lot of her. 

I liked Nick and Jordans relationship, and the extra elements this added to the story and wish this would have been explored a bit further, as well as both Nick/Jordan relationship with Gatsby (honestly Daisy should have just been axed and I would have enjoyed the story a lot more), because this was such a fascinating and interesting relationship and power dynamic.

In conclusion I think this book is perfect for fans of literary books with stunning writing and fans of the original looking for a fresh new twist. Personally I really enjoyed being emersed in the atmosphere and the writing but did not care overmuch for the plot.
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No one is more disappointed than me about this turn of events. I rated both of Nghi Vo’s novellas five whole stars. I really thought I would love this book equally. Instead — perhaps a little predictably, I’ll admit — my dislike of The Great Gatsby won out.

A little background first as to why I hate Gatsby quite so much, though. And it primarily comes down to studying it to death at GCSE (8 years ago — this will be important). I just hated the damn thing so much, and it didn’t help that I forced myself to read it ten times so that I knew it well enough in the exam to know when everything happened and where to find supporting quotes.

So, back to The Chosen and the Beautiful.

I think my major problem here was that the story tracked incredibly close to the original. I know, I know — it’s a retelling! you cry. But there’s levels to this. A retelling can be very loose, where entire plotlines change slightly. Or it can keep as close to the original as this one.

Brief interlude here to say: if you have read Gatsby but don’t remember it well enough and are thinking of rereading, don’t. I found that, knowing the story as well as I did, it took all the tension out of it. I knew exactly what was going to happen and it didn’t work well. If you haven’t read Gatsby and are wondering if you should, I would say read the first paragraph or so of the Wikipedia summary, or read the blurb. Enough to get you an idea of what the book is about (because you do get thrown straight in with this, and I can see it being confusing), but don’t read anything about the ending. Let this be a surprise for you.

But back to my point. The fact that this was a strict retelling (barring one or two aspects) worked against me here because, despite last reading Gatsby 8 years ago, I still knew it well enough to be able to spot when scenes, and even exact lines of dialogue, were lifted from it. Now, I don’t mean to frame this as an inherently bad thing — if you think about Pride and Prejudice retellings, a lot start with a riff on the opening line of that — but my problem was it threw me straight out of the story and into hating Gatsby over again as a 15 year old. Again, on this, your mileage may vary. I felt that the story was at its best when it distanced itself from directly retelling, but it always came back to it.

In addition to this, one of the major selling points for me on this book — the fantastical aspect — seemed sort of limited to adding a different kind of flavouring to the book. In the sense that, now it’s a historical fantasy, but that doesn’t really change the plot in any meaningful way. Again, I think this is a personal point because you mightn’t mind that about it. I did. Because, like I said, it comes back to predictability. If the magical aspect had had the effect of changing the way the story went, then I think I would have appreciated it more. As it was, I didn’t feel as though it added anything — there were long passages that went by without mention of them, and I neither really felt like the world was any different for it, nor really missed it.

But. If you are not plagued by a hatred of Gatsby, combined with an unfortunately good memory for almost all parts of it, then you will enjoy this book. Nghi Vo is clearly an accomplished writer and is able to mimic seamlessly F. Scott Fitzgerald in one respect, while also improving on his writing (it was so much less pretentious and more accessible than his). That is, if you don’t know which lines are his and which not, you will hardly notice. Honestly, Nghi Vo’s writing and the twists she put on the characters is what kept me going. While I couldn’t enjoy this enough to rate it over three stars, I did still like it. And I would still recommend it (unlike The Great Gatsby).

All of which to say that, unless you have an equal hatred of The Great Gatsby, I think you will love this book. And if you enjoyed Nghi Vo’s novellas already, you will especially love it.
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Perhaps I expected too much when I read this was a new take on one of my favorite novels, THE GREAT GATSBY; instead I found a rather bizarre and unsatisfying version. 

So, I really didn’t enjoy this and found myself critical of the author’s version. I love originality, but rather than original, this was a talented writer who found no personal voice, but took another writer’s material captive and tweaked it with what she felt were modern touches. Obviously, I was disappointed. 

Thank you Netgalley for this ARC.
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