Daisy and Tom, Nick and Gatsby. There’s something perpetually alluring about the Jazz Age. Nghi Vo’s reworking of the iconic The Great Gatsby in her debut, The Chosen and the Beautiful, boldly inserts Jordan Baker, a bisexual Vietnamese adoptee, into the original story with the original characters (something only really possible since the beginning of this year when the copyright of Fitzgerald’s novel ran out; it’s now in the public domain). This rewrite shakes up the homogeneity of the story yet stays true (in its way) to the Fitzgerald original.
Jordan and Daisy are childhood friends from Louisville and both end up on Long Island and Manhattan, Daisy after her marriage to Tom Buchanan and Jordan to live with an elderly aunt. Jordan’s journey however started in Tonkin. Before she passed away when Jordan was still a young girl, her adopted mother, Eliza Baker, left Louisville as a young woman to do missionary work in Vietnam. While there, she came into contact with a baby whom she named Jordan.
She had the tensile strength of spun steel, hard enough to bear her parents’ fury when she converted, sharp enough to make her way to the exotic shores she had always dreamed of, and she didn’t return to Louisville until the French and Chinese made living in Tonkin a misery. Unlike most, she could leave, and when she did, she took me with her all the way back to her home on Willow Street.
“You were my very favorite,” she told me in my earliest memories. “Just the very best baby. I could not leave you, I could not bear it.”
A skilled storyteller, even with a tale as established in the public consciousness as this one, Vo’s descriptions of the fashions, drinks, and interiors of the early 1920s are thoroughly researched and pop out on the page, particularly when it comes to Gatsby’s parties.
The lights may have been money, but there was no lack of magic either. In the main hall was a mahogany bar stretching longer than a Ziegfeld Follies kick line, and guests crowded around four and five deep before the brass rail for a taste of…well, what was your pleasure? Once I got a tiny scarlet glass filled with something murky white that tasted of cardamom, poppy seed, and honey, the last wine Cleopatra drank before her date with the asp, and Paul Townsend of the Boston Townsends got stinking drunk on something from the nomadic party of great Ubar. These were no dusty bottles from desert digs; they were fresh from the vintner and brewers themselves, for all that they were long gone dust.
In the original, Nick is the narrator, but here he’s simply Jordan’s love interest. The couple meets through Daisy, Nick’s cousin. It’s at this point that Jordan starts to relay her differences with her crowd, especially when it comes to her relationship with Nick.
Nick was saying that I might have him, and I could see something in the tricky mess of that, somewhere where we might meet and pass a summer or a year or five years or fifty. That was a tricky kind of ground, especially with the miscegenation laws that were applied like uneven powder all over the country, but there was talk that even that might change. White women had only gotten the vote two years ago, and no one knew what might happen in the time to come.
The Manchester Act would put an end to any hope of equality for Asians in America. Asians weren’t just banned from immigrating to the United States, but the Act allowed for the deportation of those deemed to have “overstayed their welcome”, as Jordan’s aunt and her friends noted when they spoke among themselves.
The main tension arises from the love triangle of Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby, as in the original. Any mention of America’s racial laws counts as commentary, but Vo’s deployment of the Manchester Act somewhere after the halfway point seems more for plot than politics. More could have been made of this had Vo wished to.
In any case, The Chosen and the Beautiful is enjoyable and holds a steady pace, even though most readers will know what will happen at the end—not necessarily a bad thing. As Jordan says of Nick, in perhaps an oblique compliment to Fitzgerald:
Nick’s voice had a distant quality to it, telling me a story he had once been told. I had noticed before that he was good at telling other people’s stories.
One can say the same for Vo.