"..he had a dreaminess to his eyes as well, as if he were somehow fundamentally unmoored from the world, perpetually startled by its sharp edges and small cruelties."
'The Chosen and the Beautiful' by Nghi Vo is a faithful re-telling of The Great Gatsby, wrapped lovingly.. and perhaps a little obsessively, within the cool contours of magical realism.
Though I normally like my re-tellings to vary enough that they can be difficult to recognize at first glance, this one is so full of interesting, creative magical elements and interpersonal nuances that I think varying from the original tale too much would have done it a disservice.
Told from the perspective of Jordan Baker, a queer adoptee originally from Tonkin/Vietnam by a wealthy white family, she has access to social tiers others would not have in the 1920's. She's free-spirited and has the money to pretty much do whatever she likes with her time and that just so happens to mean lots of exclusive parties. While it seems she has everything, she's still treated as an almost collectible oddity by her peers and the most important things remain behind sealed doors for her.
"..soul gone and some terrible engine he called love driving him now, I could see that for him, the world was always ending. For him, it was all a wreck and a ruin, and he had no idea why the rest of us weren't screaming."
Gatsby and Daisy, Nick and Tom, even the Wilsons are all still present here. Yet some of the dynamics have changed, modernizing the feel of the atmosphere. I enjoyed the way the reveal at the end was tucked away, marked only by character reactions and small side comments.. never directly addressed. At first pass, the scene just feels a bit off.. like there's something that doesn't quite make sense.. and then it does.
Tinged with Faustian themes, the author gives us a much more visually vibrant world, however. The magic is otherworldly.. life seemingly made of paper, ghosts sharing space with the living, and all sorts of other intrigues.
I loved the infernal twist on the bootlegging business and really enjoyed the way obsession was explored. It went far beyond just two people in this telling and became more of a spiral of obsession instead.. with one always drawn inexorably toward another until all were essentially connected. At times, the book reads like a fever dream.. and disoriented, you wonder if that's real or if it's the character being affected.
"She was half out of her robe like a snowdrop unsheathed after the winter, fragile and more than a little raw."
Vo is a beautifully lyrical writer who does an excellent job of creating an underlying premonition of dread while dazzling the reader with exuberant scenes and imaginative illusions. If you like a bit of mystery or a sense of fatalism in your stories, read this book. I promise you will not make it all the way through without finding at least one surprise waiting.