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The Chosen and the Beautiful


The Chosen and the Beautiful

Nghi Vo’s THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL reimagines F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY with a speculative take that reads even truer to the source material now than the original. Wielding the dexterous literary voice she flexed in her Singing Hills Cycle, Vo breathes fresh life and insight into the characters, themes and atmosphere. This is a reimagining that not only does justice to the original, but unearths what was subtext, centers what was margin, and cuts into the very meat of Fitzgerald’s intent. It’s a big task, to reinvent the wheel, particularly one so beloved and well-studied. Vo is a prime example of how a deft writer can do it successfully, strengthening the canon with the palimpsest of her interpretation.

We come to Vo’s Jazz Age East Egg through Jordan Baker, a queer Vietnamese-American adopted into a wealthy white family. She benefits from class privilege, with access to the most exclusive echelons of dazzling parties and dangerous magic, but she has none of the power that comes with it. She faces levels of the intersections of racism and misogyny. There’s the constant interpersonal exoticization by the rarefied circles she must navigate, but also the larger threat of the looming anti-immigrant Manchester Act, based on much of the real anti-immigration legislation of the 1920s.

"Brilliant and devastating, THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL is stiletto-sharp and sultry, an ambitious project that more than fulfills its potential."

For Jordan, the summer of 1922 is pivotal. Slick with magic parties and infernal temptations, her world is cast in sharp relief with the postwar return of Jay Gatsby. Daisy is the closest thing Jordan has to a best friend, and the connection between Jay and Daisy before he left had been a destabilizing thing. Now, Daisy’s life with Tom is thrown into doubt as Jay does whatever he can to woo her into the whirlwind of his world. Jordan spends much of the summer in a dalliance with Daisy’s cousin, Nick, but as complex as her relationship is with Daisy, Nick’s is its own shape of complicated with Gatsby. But for Gatsby, only one person matters. Everyone else is decoration.

You probably know the basics of the plot beats and the characters, but Vo’s exploration is a writhing, revolutionary thing. Her worldbuilding slots so cleanly into Fitzgerald’s plot it’s as if, perhaps, it was always there just underneath. A world of dark and terribly familiar magic, paper people puppeted by masquerade and a heart’s darkest desires, the intoxicating dizziness of demoniac, a place where men truly can sell their souls.

Contextualizing Gatsby’s famous themes through the lens of a queer magic immigrant Asian woman just makes sense, giving them new depth and insight. What it means to be seen and perceived, the impossibility of the American Dream, people as stories we tell to each other: these themes are explored through exoticization, the non-belonging in-between of the diaspora experience, queer longing and the intoxicating wreck of want.

Armed with acerbic wit and magic, Vo’s Jordan is simply one of the most compelling, cleverly wrought and downright fun protagonists you’ll read this year, but THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL also gives fresh life and complexity to Daisy, Nick and Gatsby. It’s so refreshing to read the queerness on the page, the subtext made text in the way Nick looks at Gatsby, and how Jordan’s relationship with Nick is also queer.

If you’ve never read Nghi Vo before, prepare yourself for some of the sharpest prose you’ve ever come across. This voice is deftly drawn, the perfect evocation of Jazz Age bloodstained glamour. It truly feels like the Gatsby you know, with the camera perspective shifted just enough to gift a fresh angle, letting a new story come through. This is a quick, accessible read, but every word is cuttingly witty and well-placed, often mirrored with dual meaning.

Brilliant and devastating, THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL is stiletto-sharp and sultry, an ambitious project that more than fulfills its potential.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on June 26, 2021

The Chosen and the Beautiful
by Nghi Vo