Pride Reads: “The Chosen and the Beautiful” by Nghi Vo

The Chosen and the Beautiful cover

I’m back with Pride Reads for 2021, where I devote June to reading books only with queer main characters or books written by queer authors. Up first, The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo, a retelling of The Great Gatsby told from Jordan’s perspective.

You may have seen the news that The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald officially entered the public domain this year, so creators are free to take the concept and run with it. Vo has chosen to center her version around Jordan Baker, who in The Chosen in the Beautiful is Vietnamese – stolen from her birth family by a wealthy white woman and brought back to the United States – and queer. In fact, pretty much everyone in this book is queer (except, presumably, Tom).

I read The Great Gatsby in college, and while I don’t consider it one of my favorite books of all time, it was one of the few books that I didn’t sell back at the end of the quarter. (Selling back novels would basically net me, like, a quarter, but oftentimes I just wanted to be rid of the books I’d been forced to read for my English major.) I do enjoy the story, but I’m not opposed to seeing how other people interpret it.

When I say this is a Gatsby retelling, I’m serious. Things play out exactly the same way they do in the original, it’s just this time we’re getting things the way Jordan sees them. I very much love the decision to make Jordan Asian, because it drastically reforms her character. (Although, let’s face it, there wasn’t much to her to start.) She is an anomaly in this world; raised by a wealthy, white family in Louisville, she never truly belonged within the society she was brought up in. She is always seen as “other”, even before adding in the fact that she’s queer. It’s something of which she’s always aware. And then she meets Khai at one of Gatsby’s parties, and he invites her to an event in Chinatown where she discovers she also doesn’t belong among her own people.

This book is atmospheric; it’s ethereal. I think it tells Gatsby better than Fitzgerald did, because Vo absolutely nails the dreamlike, enchanted quality of the whirlwind life of Gatsby, Daisy, and the others while managing to be far less pretentious. Flashbacks from Jordan and Daisy’s childhood are peppered throughout, to give you a sense of the friendship these two women have, and why they have remained friends for so long. And while it at certain points does seem to drown in opulence, it doesn’t shy away from showing the less than glamorous parts of the 1920s.

There is an element of magic to this book that I felt was underutilized. It’s a constant presence, but mostly in the background – references to people selling their souls, special clubs that only appear if you know the password, things like that. Jordan has a particular ability that is quite fascinating and is shown a few times but that doesn’t really come into play until the ending. I am always a fan of adding magic to a story, but I rather wish this had been woven into the narrative a bit more. This is a straight retelling, so the fantastical elements have no affect on what happens. I think I would have preferred it if they did.

Much of The Chosen and the Beautiful meanders in a hazy, trance-like way, through various flashbacks and Gatsby parties and Jordan going out on the town. The ending is mostly not a shock – at least if you’ve already read The Great Gatsby – but there was still a particular moment where I was completely surprised at the direction in which Vo took the characters. I liked it, but I thought it kind of came out of nowhere. Perhaps I need to reread and see if there were clues I missed.

If you’ve never read The Great Gatsby, and even if you have, I highly recommend this book. The writing is beautiful, and the characters are far more compelling in this version than in the original.

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The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo is published by Tor.com and is currently available wherever books are sold.

Stay tuned throughout June for more Pride Reads!

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.


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