Desert Isle Keeper
The Chosen and the Beautiful
I absolutely didn’t expect Nghi Vo’s next book to take up the case of the much sidelined Jordan Baker from The Great Gatsby and retell her story – but she has, and she’s done it so beautifully and so spellbindingly that it will captivate readers worldwide.
It’s 1922, and when we first encounter talented golfer Jordan, she and Daisy Buchannan have used an enchantment to fly around Daisy’s West Egg manse. This version of Gatsby is thoroughly infused with magic, and its enchantments add new wrinkles to the familiar plot of Fitzgerald’s story. Tom and Daisy remain figures of soigné upper class privilege; they introduce Jordan to Tom’s cousin, Nick Caraway, and soon Nick becomes curious about Jay Gatsby, his rich neighbor. Jordan had known Jay before, when he was a hungry young soldier infatuated with Daisy.
Jordan, an Asian woman who was orphaned and adopted by a white family and brought to America, feels like a shiny object held up by or derided by many of her white friends. The privilege of the Baker name opens some social doors for her, but it doesn’t shelter her from racism of her peers nor allow her the freedom that they have. Jordan also harbors a secret – she’s bisexual, and has fallen in love with a woman and been rejected. As Jordan’s love affair with Nick continues apace (and Nick’s powerful attraction to the enigmatic Gatsby continues), she deals with her intense, sometimes one-sided and toxic friendship with Daisy, whose careless ways and reckless behavior put Jordan – her confidence keeper and closest friend – in danger. When Daisy impulsively runs off with Jay at the end of a long, wild summer, their lives will collide with multiple horrors in untold and ungovernable ways.
The Chosen and the Beautiful embroiders Gatsby with a fresh point of view, and a wonderful sense of magical possibilities. Jordan is the right mix of tough and sarcastic, smart and vulnerable when it comes to Daisy, often giving in to her whims but resenting the whirlpool of vicious casualness her best friend brings to her life; caught in a poisonous obsession that mirrors Gatsby’s in a way. Daisy is one part thoughtless child, one part monster; she is more sympathetic here than when under examination by Fitzgerald’s pen, but not by much.
Comparatively, Jordan’s bittersweet love story with Nick is a fascination. Nick comes to love Gatsby on some level, but knows that Gatsby is obsessed with Daisy, and is conflicted by his own feelings for Jordan. His bantering passion for Jordan is something she’s never experienced before, and she knows that he deserves better than Daisy’s messy circle.
This disastrous, drunken quadrangle manages to avoid clichés while playing out the main story beats of Gatsby. What Vo does with the death of Myrtle Wilson, and how she comes to quite literally haunt Daisy and Jordan and Tom, is particularly delicious in its wicked way. The bleary festivities whirl out of control, just as they do in Fitzgerald’s original, turning Tom, Daisy, Jordan, Nick and Gatsby into an uneven and troubled polyhedron.
The book’s use of magic is interesting, but could have used a pinch more detail in the world-building, which is the only thing that keeps the book from a straight A grade. Jordan is blessed with the gift of second sight, and that is fascinatingly portrayed. The snobbery of 1920s society is skewered handily, and Vo points out the ugly attitudes which permeated the era.
The Chosen and the Beautiful comes up just short of perfect, but it’s delightful and deserves a spot on your keeper shelf.