Nghi Vo’s “The Chosen and the Beautiful” – a YA rewrite of the Great Gatsby?

by Friederike Jahn

Over the past few years, screenwriters, authors, and directors have been increasingly interested in adapting literary classics, whether it be on screen or paper. The emerging trend to revisit classic literary pieces and even rewriting them, has been quite successful with films like Little Women and West Side Story reaching box office sales.

Recently, American novelist Nghi Vo published her debut novel ‘The Chosen and the Beautiful’ after having been successful with several novellas. The novel is part of the above-mentioned trend because it retells the story of the literary classic The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Considered to be the ‘Great American Novel’, Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece is set in the 1920s where flapper girls, Jazz, economic prosperity, and dazzling parties dominate Western society. Told from the perspective of protagonist and first-person narrator Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby tells the story of mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, and his longing to be reunited with his former lover, Daisy Buchanan. Sounds familiar, right? Any adaptation would need to capture the general atmosphere of The Great Gatsby to succeed, considering how well-known the text is. Well, in her novel The Chosen and the Beautiful, writer Nghi Vo has managed exactly that: preserving the familiar, but adding a queer, non-western vitality to Fitzgerald’s classic narrative.

Unlike Fitzgerald’s story, Vo shifts the focal point from Nick Carraway to Jordan Baker, allowing a female perspective to surface in a world predominantly controlled by men. But that’s only half the story, in Vo’s version Jordan Baker is also a queer Vietnamese person, still trying to figure out her own true identity. These characteristics have brought up the question whether The Chosen and the Beautiful ought to be considered a young adult (literature) rewrite of The Great Gatsby. Vo uses several tropes and components typically used in YA literature that really elaborate Jordan Baker’s story. The nature of her character extenuates her oddity and contrasts social norms set in the 1920s. Within YA texts, gender and sexual identity are big themes that add to the coming-of-age aspect and which are also used in The Chosen and the Beautiful. The reader learns about Jordan’s upbringings and the depth of her character, which is vital for the dynamic structure within the novel. Jordan’s queerness combines a foreign yet so familiar storyline that elevates this classic narrative to a new realm of interest for young adults that can connect and identity themselves with her character.

Today, it is not only refreshing to see classic literary pieces through a queer perspective, it is also important to acknowledge the LGBTQ+ community, which has been neglected in the literary canon significantly, especially when it comes to YA literature. With books like Nghi Vo’s, adolescents can dive deeper into a beautifully written retelling of The Great Gatsby, where female agency, a queer vitality and a non-white perspective are at the centre of attention.