I am late to the game on Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful. I knew I wanted to read this story, it was just a matter of when. It was also my first time reading Vo’s work and I must say I am a fan. Her debut full-length novel is dripping in the outrageous glamour of the 1920s with some devilishly magical twists.
As a young girl, Jordan was whisked away from Vietnam by an affluent woman named Eliza Baker. Upon their return to Kentucky, Eliza passes away and Jordan is left to be raised by Eliza’s parents in a prominent Southern white society. Throughout the book, Jordan explores significant childhood memories that inform us of her experience and the people that will surround her in the future. In the present day, Jordan details the highs and lows that took place in the summer of 1922. It’s here we see Jordan’s tenuous relationship with an older Daisy trapped in a loveless marriage. Gatsby sets his sights on Jordan and Daisy’s cousin Nick Carraway in hopes of using them to get to his one true love. But while the man with everything schemes, Jordan and Nick indulge in each other and the utter excess of the era. The fun doesn’t stop until Gatsby says it does, and the end may come sooner than Jordan thinks.
Everything about the book’s summary sounded intriguing, and it hides the fact that our protagonist is rubbing elbows with Jay Gatsby and the hot mess that is Daisy Buchanan. I am personally grateful the blurb sidesteps this information because one, I probably would not have read this fantastic book, and two, this is Jordan’s story and those tragic lovebirds should not overshadow it. Stylistically the book captures the same poetic prose in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. However, the story is told through a much more interesting pair of eyes (sorry Nick Carraway) and there are a lot more fantastical things to see.
Magic exists on the fringes of The Chosen and the Beautiful which makes it even more enticing and mysterious. We’re treated to some stories about Jordan using her paper cutting magic but it’s used more as a tool to set up Daisy’s character and see how Jordan has rejected a part of herself. Vo teases us a lot with the magic in this story. At one point I was treated to a description of imps on glittering leashes attached to the elderly, refined women that keep company with Jordan’s aunt. Let me tell you my curiosity was PIQUED but alas Vo only gives us a taste before taking us back to the busy lifestyle Jordan keeps. Jordan and the crew also frequently indulge in an illegal substance called demoniac that produces unknown effects. I felt a little delirious at times throughout Jordan’s accounts of Gatsby’s parties and outings to exclusive speakeasies. There’s debauchery and demons aplenty, and half the time I couldn’t tell if Vo was describing some magical element or just flexing her beautiful prose.
Jordan was a fabulous character and I love how steadfast she was in her wants and needs. She unapologetically lives her life and says it like it is. When everyone fawns over Gatsby, Jordan holds back to assess him and make her own move. She isn’t swayed by his glamour and isn’t afraid to put him in his place. For someone who doesn’t really fit in anywhere, Jordan overcompensates and comes off so self-assured in her interactions. She wraps Nick Carraway around her finger and has such a laissez-faire attitude toward their relationship. Yet, she also laments the weeks he doesn’t call her or when he is enjoying someone else’s company. But these moments of self-doubt quickly pass and Jordan finds entertainment elsewhere with women and men alike. She isn’t afraid to work a room on her own, and often ditches company she no longer finds exciting. Jordan is entirely her own person with little time to waste and worry.
The Chosen and the Beautiful quickly soaked my initial expectations in the finest demoniac before setting it on fire. I even lamented early on in my reading that Daisy and Gatsby were going to be a part of this story. But before I was even halfway in this story, Jordan gave me a flirty wink, grabbed my hand, and was determined to show me a good time. So it’s official, Vo’s version of The Great Gatsby is the only one I will accept moving forward.
Rating: The Chosen and the Beautiful – 8.0/10