Book Review: The Chosen and the Beautiful

The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo. New York: Tordotcom, 2021.

When I read Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school alongside a few of my Vietnamese American classmates, I never dared to imagine a Vietnamese person in a Western story, and I doubt most of my classmates did either. As imaginative and grandiose as Gatsby’s world was, it also painted the portrait of an exclusive 1920s America—socially, of course, but also racially.

In Nghi Vo’s debut novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful, side character Jordan Baker becomes the main character, adopted—or, more accurately, kidnapped—as a baby in Tonkin (colonial Vietnam) by the well-off American, Miss Eliza Baker. De-centering Western literary giants and challenging them, Vo’s queer, Vietnamese Jordan Baker recalls the way Monique Truong brought forward the queer and Vietnamese character Binh in The Book of Salt from a footnote about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Indochinese chef in Paris in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book.

To revisit the canon through Vo’s reimaginings is to also revisit American history, made more complete with the immigrant and queer experience in additional settings like Chinatown and a fictional queer bar called the Cendrillon. Jordan’s character is literally displaced from the very first page, even before we learn how she became a Baker in America. In the beautiful opening lines, she and Daisy are airborne thanks to a magical charm, floating around Daisy’s mansion like “puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam.”

As an Asian, Jordan can never really settle into the social circles that a true Baker would, but Jordan is not the type of girl who settles, anyway. She describes herself as the “most elegant kind of vagabond” who doesn’t care too much about having a home, but names the Cendrillon as one—a place where she finds queer people like her. Vo’s Cendrillon allows queer characters to take up space and amplifies the theme of social belonging and outcasts already in Fitzgerald’s novel. Gatsby is from West Egg, made of “new money,” looked down on by East Egg’s wealthy families – an outcast. Vo also writes him as a queer character, naturally finding a place in the Cendrillon. Here, Vo offers Jordan’s careful eye on Gatsby that adds depth to Fitzgerald’s tragic hero: “I could see that for him, the world was always ending. For him, it was all a wreck and a run, and he had no idea why the rest of us weren’t screaming.”

The Vietnamese part of Jordan’s identity opens the door for magical realism through her superpower of papercutting, an Asian decorative art. Anything she crafts from paper can come to life, including a paper doppelganger of her best friend, Daisy. Vo infuses papercutting magic into crucial moments of the novel, adding elements of surprise and shock to a storyline that is otherwise loyal to Gatsby’s order of events. The materiality of paper and the transience of papercutting art becomes a metaphor for the excesses and transience of the Roaring 20s, as well as the violence. As Jordan’s paper creations come to life only to disintegrate into embers and ashes, Vo compels us to revisit Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes, and see the lives, dreams, and broken hearts that are buried there, in another perspective.

Author Nghi Vo.

Vo bravely and thoughtfully invites discussions of race and sexuality in a beloved American classic. Jordan and Khai, the Vietnamese boy she encounters in Gatsby’s mansion, are self-aware of their precarious positions in America. “Silly is all we can do in a place like this,” Khai tells Jordan scornfully before rushing to perform “cheap, showy, silly” papercutting at one of Gatsby’s party with the rest of his Asian troupe. Khai realizes that his work involves packaging a sophisticated Asian culture and performance for white American consumption, but he invites Jordan to Chinatown later to experience the magic of papercutting that exists beyond the white gaze. In Chinatown, Jordan sits uncomfortably among Vietnamese people, confronting her ignorance of her motherland. Jordan does not racially pass for white, but she has enjoyed a privileged way of life as a Baker ever since she was adopted by the rich family. Her mobility in white society, although still limited, distances her from Khai and his Vietnamese friends. The Chosen and the Beautiful gives us only the beginning of Jordan’s exploration of her Vietnamese identity which she had been suppressing all this time. “It felt like everyone in the room was trying to give me some [history], whether it sat well on me or not,” says Jordan, overwhelmed and embarrassed by all the Vietnamese legends she never knew.

Vo’s storytelling is not entirely seamless. At times, Jordan’s backstory with Daisy and the Bakers and her Asian identity feel rather compartmentalized in their own chapters, when they could have been better integrated into the Gatsby universe. Perhaps such a structure amplifies the characters’ challenges with integration, from the past being unable to roll over into the present for Gatsby and Daisy, to Jordan never finding the space to be her Vietnamese self as much as the Cendrillon and Vo’s romantic plotlines allow her to express her queer identity. In one chapter, Vo attempts to bridge the Gatsby part of Jordan’s world with her concerns as an Asian American, closing with a serious tone: “I wonder what the world will be like when I wake up, I thought blearily. I woke up at noon. The Manchester Act had passed. Jay Gatsby was dead.” The fictional Manchester Act is based off of xenophobic anti-immigration acts in American history, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924. Yet it takes effort for the reader to hold these sentences together as equally significant events, or to feel convinced that both events dramatically shift Jordan’s world.

In a recent online event with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Vo shared with excited fans that this will not be the last time we see Jordan, our queer, Vietnamese socialite. She’s not done writing in the Gatsby universe yet. She’s magically transformed the American literary canon for Asian American readers like me to remember our predecessors through fiction when they were written out of history, and she makes visible young queer Asians like her unforgettable main character, Jordan Baker.

The Chosen and the Beautiful
by Nghi Vo
Tordotcom, $26.99

Contributor’s Bio

Cathy Duong is a current junior at Yale, majoring in English. She enjoys (over)analyzing all things Vietnamese, from the briefest references to Vietnam in Western pop culture, to art, literature, and film created by the talented Viet diaspora.


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