The Chit Chat: hey, y’all! Welcome to another episode of The Raccoon Awards, where I don a ’20s flapper dress and hang from the chandelier drizzling book recommendations on people like it’s champagne. Today we’re sippin on THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL and it is exquisite. Let’s get going.
The Synopsis: The Chosen and the Beautiful is a fresh take on the jazz-age classic, The Great Gatsby. Nghi Vo’s spin? It’s told by Jordan Baker, a queer Viet girl who is both outside of society yet even more connected in society because of her unique position. There’s also paper magic, demons, and Gatsby himself may or may not have made a deal with the devil.
The Hot Takes: I know the synopsis makes this sound like an off the wall high stakes magical book, but hear me out: THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL holds true to the original GREAT GATSBY freakishly well. While it’s certainly a fresh take and a fresh set of circumstances than Fitzgerald’s original, everything that’s changed still fits into the original themes: Jordan’s ethnicity only highlights the blatant racism Tom had in the first place, Gatsby dealing with actual demons is only half a step away from Meyer Wolfshiem and his infamous molar cufflinks, and as for the eyeglasses over the city? I’m not going to give anything away, but they carry so much power. THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL honestly brings out the very best of the original.
Even the writing itself feels like reading a more amplified Fitzgerald? The prose is simply top tier, each line perfectly crafted to be beautiful at the best of times and cruel at the worst, not unlike the story itself. Nghi Vo, of course, is already an established master of prose – if you haven’t read her novellas, you should fix that – but THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL truly blows the prose out of the water. Trust me when I tell you: I had to read this book in a day because I couldn’t bear to leave it unfinished overnight. It was too beautiful and profound to put down.
I’m also in love with the magic system within this book. It’s subtle, kept in the background, and something that, if you’re not a SFF-reader, you can more or less ignore. Yet it’s absolutely fascinating. Jordan can make things come to life out of cutting paper. Demons are real, and they flock to Gatsby’s. Speak-easys are protected with illusory magic. Ghosts leave haunting messages, and paper can talk. There’s a beverage called demoniac – out of demon’s blood – that I really thought was some sort of liqueur for at least half of the book until realizing what it really did. I loved exploring this world where reality is blurred and literally anything could happen. It smacks of magical realism while being something else entirely, but not quite the typical fantasy one might expect.
You can’t talk about THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL without talking about Jordan Baker’s ethnicity, however. In this version, Jordan was brought back to the United States from Vietnam (formerly known as Tonkin) as a baby by Eliza Baker, and grew up in Louisville among the virtually all-white upper class. As a Viet in the 1920’s, Jordan’s ethnicity lets her do things “normal” high society women can’t, but as a Viet in the 1920’s, Jordan’s ethnicity closes the doors on being a “normal” high society woman. Instead she lives in a world all her own, free to move around within the upper echelons without having to act a certain way or be a certain type–the perfect foil to Daisy, really.
It makes me glad to see it. One of my main complaints when reading historical fiction in general is the blatant white-washing, as though BIPOCs didn’t exist outside of the Civil War, Civil Rights, or as maids (and sometimes not even then). The truth is people of all ethnicities have been living in the US – not to mention other parts of the not-all-white West – this whole damn time, it’s just people thinking historical erasure is synonymous with historically accurate. I don’t buy that, and I get incredibly uncomfortable reading it. THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL is one of very few historical books that breaks that flow and puts a high society Viet girl at Gatsby’s. I’m here for it, and I want more of it.
So, yeah. This is an absolutely gorgeous, jaw-dropping twist on a classic that you’ll want to clear your schedule to experience.
The Misc There are at least 9 remakes of The Great Gatsby coming out this year, and while I will probably read more of them, I feel like my Gatsby itch was completely satisfied with THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL. I don’t need to read another Gatsby remake after this. It had everything I wanted to see.
Does it get a star? Yes! The Raccoon Awards is proud to present a starred review to THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL.
Can I order it? THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL hits shelves in June, and you can preorder it here. Don’t want to wait? Why not check out Nghi Vo’s earlier works, THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE (here) and WHEN THE TIGER CAME DOWN THE MOUNTAIN (here)? They’re amazing!