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.
Nghi Vo’s debut novel The Chosen and the Beautiful reinvents this classic of the American canon as a coming-of-age story full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess, and introduces a major new literary voice.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.
Literary isn’t really my genre and The Great Gatsby, to high school me, was tolerable at best. But when Nghi Vo has a new book, and one that centers around the Asian American experience surrounded by white peers, I simply must read it. And what a delight it was. Vo keeps to Gatsby’s literary roots while giving her re-imagined Jordan, now a young Vietnamese American woman, so much more depth and taking a deep exploration into Jordan’s intersection of racial discrimination and class privilege.
With Vo’s usual literary flair, The Chosen and the Beautiful is written, well, beautifully. We follow two timelines, one present tracing the steps of The Great Gatsby itself, and one past, following Jordan’s footsteps, illustrating how a young Vietnamese woman found her place in the midst of New York’s elite society. The pacing is slow and languid, and certainly very character driven. We follow Jordan and Daisy as they prepare for trips to the city, intertwine lives with the likes of Nick and Gatsby. But we also learn of Jordan’s more sordid adventures, to hidden speakeasies and affairs with strangers. The magical element in this book isn’t very strong, hints of papercutting and demonaic, but it certainly adds to the mysterious, intoxicating atmosphere of the book.
The part of this book I really want to highlight is Jordan’s attitude towards the (largely white) high society she finds herself a part of. Jordan is ethnically Vietnamese, and yet is raised, and accepted, among her white peers. She’s learned to build up walls, to brush away the stares and the not-so-subtle racist comments (“oh, but not you, dear”). In many ways, Jordan has learned to ‘successfully’ integrate herself and even use her unique “exotic” appearance to her own benefit. As the society around her debates the merits of removing those of Chinese descent from the country (and all other Asian ethnicities, because let’s be honest, they can’t tell the difference), Jordan gives it barely passing thought, protected in this shield of exotic whiteness she’s built herself.
It’s not only until an encounter with an actor from a Vietnamese entertainment troupe and is all but forcibly dragged to meet the other members that she consciously confronts her Asian-ness, her Otherness, in this White society. Simultaneously, Jordan is confronted with the privilege of her wealth and social status, forced to recognize where money and social connections can smooth away the racism. The commentary Vo presents is extremely thoughtful and nuanced, and certainly not one I’ve seen in the SFF genre before. There’s certainly no handholding, but particularly as someone who’s learned to navigate a largely white society in a similar manner Jordan has, the parallels and commentary were very apparent.
Overall, I rate this book a 4/5. The literary nature and slow, slice-of-life like pacing of this book may turn some readers away, but this new imagining of an Asian American, queer Jordan and her mindset navigating the social elites of New York high society gives a delightfully nuanced perspective I’ve never quite seen before, one I strongly resonated with.
r/Fantasy Bingo Squares:
- 1st Person POV
- Published in 2021