Expected publication date: April 8, 2014 (tomorrow!)
In Sara Benincasa’s contemporary retelling of The Great Gatsby, a teenage girl becomes entangled in the drama of a Hamptons social circle, only to be implicated in a tragedy that shakes the summer community.
Everyone loves a good scandal.
Naomi Rye usually dreads spending the summer with her socialite mother in East Hampton. This year is no different. She sticks out like a sore thumb among the teenagers who have been summering (a verb only the very rich use) together for years. But Naomi finds herself captivated by her mysterious next-door neighbor, Jacinta. Jacinta has her own reason for drawing close to Naomi-to meet the beautiful and untouchable Delilah Fairweather. But Jacinta’s carefully constructed world is hiding something huge, a secret that could undo everything. And Naomi must decide how far she is willing to be pulled into this web of lies and deception before she is unable to escape.
Based on a beloved classic and steeped in Sara Benincasa’s darkly comic voice, Great has all the drama, glitz, and romance with a terrific modern (and scandalous) twist to enthrall readers.
I’ve read The Great Gatsby quite a few times, so I’m coming at this knowing a lot about the source material. Because of that, this review is kind of different, and I’m breaking it down to the good, in-between, and not-so-good parts of this novel.
The writing, the setting, the mood: All of these things felt so much like the feeling of The Great Gatsby. The lavish parties. The lustre of the Hamptons, always with a dark current of tension and not quite right-ness. Benincasa nailed the mood of the original, and for me, that’s the most important part of any writing by Fitzgerald (but especially Gatsby).
The relationship between Jacinta and Delilah: As dumb as this sounds for someone who has a masters in English with a concentration in modern fiction (meaning I read and studied Fitzgerald a LOT), the way that Benincasa approached the main relationship made my understanding of The Great Gatsby that much stronger. I really felt like I understood Gatsby and Daisy a lot more because of their counterparts, Jacinta and Delilah. In a lot of ways (and without spoilers), the reasons for their relationship and the way it’s set up made WAY more sense in this book than it did in the original.
The uncliched LGBTQ-ness: One of the biggest surprises of the book for me (I hadn’t read a synopsis) was the gender-swapping of Gatsby for Jacinta. As soon as I figured that out, I realized that the book would probably involve a girl-girl relationship (in fact, it involves two lesbian relationships). What I liked about this relationship was that the book wasn’t focused on fact that it was a lesbian relationship – there was no coming out or fanfare about it. It simply was, and the characters reacted accordingly and appropriately.
The ending: The ending deviates from the original quite a bit, and I liked it a lot. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say, it’s a bit open-ended and it REALLY suits the material. I loved it. Reminded me of Cruel Intentions (click on the link if you don’t mind having an idea of the ending…but that’s all I’ll say about it!).
The characters: While I thought Benincasa did an admirable job with making most of the characters feel authentic, I did not like the characters. But then…I don’t know if I liked the characters in The Great Gatsby either. I like the original for it’s stunning writing and mood – but I’m pretty sure that I hate the characters and I’m supposed to. In both the original and this retelling, pretty much everyone is a vapid, snobby socialite, people who play at life and can get out of anything because of daddy or mommy. And yet, they have this lustre that only comes with living that charmed life…in Great, I felt the same way, so I guess Benincasa did a good job making her characters just as unlikeable.
The disconnect: The main character, Naomi, is supposed to be the everyman through which we enter the story. But for me, she felt a little shallow. She’s honest about the fact that she starts out hating the Hamptons society and then as she slips further in, she realizes what it is to be accepted and gets a little wrapped up in it. That seems natural. But somehow, I never really got her, and as the only eyes that we see through, I think I needed to care about her more than I did.
The retelling: This, to me, was the biggest issue in this book: it just felt like TOO much of a retelling and not enough of a unique story. I guess I like my retellings to be more adaptation than straight retelling? Everything in The Great Gatsby, from the “eyes” to the heat of the day that ends in a car crash, to the green light, to the lavish parties…it all lined up just a little too perfectly in GREAT. I was left with a feeling that I’d just read, a 2010 synopsis of The Great Gatsby, not that I’d just read a great book.
Gossip Girl Fashion: Jacinta is a fashion and party blogger, so it’s obvious from the beginning that we’re going to get some crazy outfits – and I loved it. Benincasa did a great job describing the outfits and, as a former fashion blogger, they always seemed right for her character and for that scene. And yeah, there’s totally a white party in the book.
The Final Word:
GREAT was an enjoyable read. It definitely felt a little too similar to The Great Gatsby for me, but it completely captured the mood and setting of Fitzgerald’s original. I think this would be a great classroom read as a compare-and-contrast, and it’s definitely interesting as an LGBTQ read that doesn’t involve cliches. This is one for people who like unlikeable characters and a little big of tension and darkness in their reads.
GREAT comes out tomorrow. Are you interested in reading it? Have you read The Great Gatsby? How do you feel about dark YA or unlikeable characters? Are you into classic literature retellings? Hit the comments and let me know!