[Review] The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.

Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.

But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.

Genre(s): (New) Adult, Retellings, Historical, Fantasy
Published by Tor.com on June 1, 2021 
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Representation (click to show)

bi/pan Vietnamese-American transracial adoptee MC [Jordan], bi/pan multiracial (Thai & Caucasian) major character [Nick], bi/pan multiracial (Chippewa & Black & Caucasian) major character [Gatsby], implied-possibly-asexual/aromantic major character [Daisy], queer relationships, Vietnamese characters [Khai, Bai & co], diverse minor characters

Content warnings (click to show)

pregnancy scare, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, Orientalism, racism & xenophobia, white supremacist rhetoric, major character death(s), child death(s), off-page vehicular manslaughter, off-page gun violence, off-page murder/suicide, infidelity, self-harm (burn), physical abuse, medical stroke, blood, ableist language

You’ve probably heard that The Chosen and the Beautiful is Gatsby, but queer and Asian and with magic. Impressively, Vo fully delivers on all four aspects, negotiating a tricky balance to create what might be one of my favorite retellings ever (and believe me, I’ve read a lot of them). To do justice to each, in this review I’m going to try something a little different and talk more in depth about each of these aspects. 

I sat up just as we passed beyond the sightless, spectacled eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, and I saw that rather than being wide and wise, they were now closed and refused to look any further.

Gatsby: I honestly wish I’d reread and/or rewatched The Great Gatsby before starting on The Chosen and the Beautiful, because there are countless allusions and Easter eggs that I must’ve missed. Personally I prefer when a retelling sticks fairly close to the original in terms of basic plot and characters while exploring the implications of a few key changes, which I was delighted to find is the case here. A lot of the focus is on in-between scenes that fit neatly into the original narrative, which I felt enhanced the iconic scenes from the original by really giving us insight into how the story changes when you’re looking through Jordan’s POV instead of Nick’s: the basic details are the same, the fundamental characterization is consistent, but the narrator’s background and beliefs color the whole experience.

Vo also does an incredible job matching Fitzgerald’s writing style, for the most part; I often have trouble with historical fiction that tries to sound too old-time-y or period-appropriate, but that’s not really an issue here. And the atmosphere, man oh man. The joy and abandon of being twenty-something, in love, free in what feels like most of the ways that matter. The glitz and glamor of Gatsby parties. The creeping rot underlying all the shiny pretty things.

“Having a gay time now?”

Queer: As a bisexual reader, I absolutely love that almost all of the main characters are queer, and therefore almost all of the main relationships — and there are a lot of them, overlapping and intertwined — are also queer! (Regarding the quote above, I’d like to state for the record that I am aware that in older English “gay” means happy or carefree; that’s what makes it punny in this book.) Better yet, it’s not a big deal among the main cast or most of the company they choose to keep; it just is what it is. No matter who you ship, you’ll probably find at least a few moments to delight in.

I was clever enough to know that it was my exotic looks and faintly tragic history that made me such an attractive curiosity, and I was not yet clever enough to mind when they prodded at my differences for a conversation piece at dinner.

Asian: While I cannot speak specifically on the Vietnamese immigrant/ adoptee representation, or to the experience of being the only person of color in 1920s high society, I felt that Vo managed to present thoughtful representation, with all its accompanying effects on the big picture, without it “taking over” the novel. Examples of discrimination and bias span from Tom’s white supremacist rants to more subtle microaggressions (“But where are you really from?”) to systemic signs like anti-immigrant legislation. We see how other people see Jordan’s “foreignness” as well as how she sees it, and the ways it affects how she sees herself; it’s also related to the portrayal of magic, which I’ll explore more in the next section.

To avoid spoilers I won’t go into detail, but it’s also worth noting that Jordan isn’t the only major character of color; each of her compatriots adds to our understanding of their society and how it treats people unequally based on their perceived value.

Pinched between my thin fingers, the paper lion started to shiver as if in a breeze. It wiggled, it danced, and soon enough the four cut paws started to pedal in the air, churning for purchase before arching its rear legs up to scrape at my wrist. It was only paper and smaller than a kitten. It couldn’t have hurt me, but the way it moved made me flinch back, certain I would turn my arm and see four thin scrapes all in a row.

Magic: The incorporation of demon magic adds a pervasive dark backdrop to the razzle-dazzle of the Jazz Age, a subtle but constant reminder that not all is as it seems even as the characters continue to buy into the illusions that they want to believe. On the other hand, Jordan’s paper magic is more of a recurring plot point since, like Jordan herself, it doesn’t quite fit in with 1920s New York society; after its introduction, this element almost goes dormant until the late middle of the narrative when it makes a comeback. Still, I would say that overall the story is much more historical than fantasy, which I know some reviewers found a bit disappointing but I personally enjoyed.

With all of the above taken together, The Chosen and the Beautiful is an immersive reimagining of The Great Gatsby with charms and dangers that are all its own, following through on all the top-billed elements to tell a fantastic story. The setting is vibrant, the characters and themes complex, and it’s incredibly easy to get swept up in it all.

4.5 stars

Conversion: 12.0 / 15 = 4.5 stars

RATING DETAILS

Prose: 7 / 10
Characters & Relationships: 8 / 10
Emotional Impact: 8 / 10
Development/Flow: 9 / 10
Setting: 8 / 10

Diversity & Social Themes: 4 / 5
Originality/Trope Execution: 4 / 5
Memorability: 4 / 5

9 thoughts on “[Review] The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

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