Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

“The Chosen and the Beautiful” by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful

By Nghi Vo

 

I received an ARC of The Chosen and the Beautiful from Macmillan-Tor/Forge in exchange for an honest review.

 

Retelling and riffing on classic texts is, at best, playing with fire. Every once in a while someone like John Gardner comes along with Grendel or Madeline Miller with The Song of Achilles, but in my experience books like these fail more often than they succeed. So it was with trepidation as well as anticipation that I began Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful, which reframes one of my all-time favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, from the perspective of a Vietnamese Jordan Baker in a world where one can attend a party at Gatsby’s and encounter actual magic.

I was happy to discover that although Nghi Vo doesn’t quite manage to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle storytelling that facilitated Madeline Miller’s rise to fame, The Chosen and the Beautiful is a refreshing and successful complement to The Great Gatsby that I can’t wait to recommend for fans of the original book and newcomers to the story. Nghi Vo already made her mark with the first two Singing Hills Cycle novellas, but The Chosen and the Beautiful is an exceptional debut novel from an exceptional writer, and I hope it is only the first of what will be many.

It is clear from page one that The Chosen and the Beautiful is all about lush prose. There are many authors out there who can write beautifully, but there aren’t many authors out there who can write beautifully without it coming across as…well, a bit obnoxious. Nghi Vo is one of them. Nearly every sentence of this book is dripping in poetic language, and somehow it never grated on me. I am frankly astounded, because Nghi Vo is really going toe-to-toe with Fitzgerald himself, one of the greatest writers in the history of American literature, and she holds her own. Her prose evokes Fitzgerald but doesn’t feel imitative (though beautiful, his prose was more sparse). That’s impressive enough on its own to recommend The Chosen and the Beautiful.

Here’s the big question: will your enjoyment of The Chosen and the Beautiful be diminished if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby? I will readily admit that I am not the best person to answer that question—I have loved The Great Gatsby for many years and have so internalized the story that I have a hard time imagining what it might be like to approach The Chosen and the Beautiful without that knowledge. But I will venture an answer, and my answer is no. This is a rich and rewarding work in its own right, and while I believe you will get the more out of The Chosen and the Beautiful if you read The Great Gatsby first, it is by no means necessary to do so.

There are two aspects of The Chosen and the Beautiful which didn’t sit well with me. The first is that it never seems sure what it wants to say; it flirts with theme but never commits. There was a moment about halfway through the novel when I almost gasped out loud because I thought it had finally become clear why Nghi Vo was telling this story and how it was in conversation with The Great Gatsby, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant, but then that aspect of the story was almost entirely abandoned. I hesitate to bring up Madeline Miller yet again in this review, but The Song of Achilles, by contrast, illuminates my frustration—Miller’s debut is an essential text because it blows up generations of misreadings by refusing the reader an opportunity to deny the homosexual subtext of The Iliad. The Chosen and the Beautiful offers nothing of the sort to readers of The Great Gatsby; whenever it seems as if it might take a stance, it shies away.

The second is that The Chosen and the Beautiful never truly pushes back against the text that inspired it. This book is at its best when it directly contradicts The Great Gatsby—I loved how Nghi Vo rewrote Fitzgerald’s original scenes, flavoring them with dialogue and metaphors that slip in seamlessly with lines I recognized, but I loved the new scenes even more (the chapter in which Jordan’s backstory is revealed is a particular highlight, as is her interaction with the iconic T.J. Eckleburg billboard near the end of the novel). If The Chosen and the Beautiful had been so bold as to actively reshape the climactic sequence of the source material, I daresay it would be a classic in its own right. Alas, it settles for being a satisfying, but almost beat-for-beat, retelling.

 

The Chosen and the Beautiful will be published June 1st, 2021.

Review by Erin Larson

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