(and I get extra ability to say that in this post because like Daisy Fay, I’m [technically] from Kentucky.)
So I’ve never actually read The Great Gatsby, I’ve seen the film adaptations of course, but now I simultaneously want to and feel like I don’t have to after reading Jillian Cantor‘s novel Beautiful Little Fools. This is such an interesting, engaging, unique book, it has me every shade of excited and I really think you’ll get a kick out of it.
(Real quick, here’s a link to my vlog too!)
Rather than focusing on the hegemonic dudes, sorry, “gentlemen,” Cantor instead sets her sights on the ladies, much to my intrigue and excitement. We get so much context and backstory that we don’t see in the classic Gatsby–book or film–and as most of my return-readers know, I love me some character development.
Now, having only a very basic understanding of Gatsby, I would say that I see the female characters more as side characters at best, or plot devices to move the story along. I mean, the title is all about Jay Gatsby, after all… Even in Cantor’s book, Daisy makes a comment that “sometimes, I felt like a prop in my own life. Like a marionette whom everyone assumed didn’t know how to move without a man pulling her strings. That wasn’t true” (285). But Cantor gives Daisy and the other women a sense of agency, she gives them desires, she takes them away, and it’s all gloriously dramatic and engaging.
For one, we get to meet young Daisy and Jordan, we see them as carefree girls who eventually develop into cynical and, according to Nick Carraway, somewhat “dead inside.” Daisy isn’t simply the giddy, party-loving, boozy floozy she seems to be portrayed as in the films either. In fact, [SMALL SPOILER] in Fools, Daisy doesn’t even have an affair with Gatsby… even though she definitely thinks about it, but probably not for the reason you’d expect.
Another wickedly interesting example of development and agency is with Jordan. Again, not having read the book and it being a while since I’ve seen either film adaptation, I kind of forgot that Jordan was even a character. But she quickly became one of my favorites; she’s so…nuanced, and I want to “oh honey” her for a multitude of reasons. She’s simultaneously likable and able to evoke eye-rolls, but I do like her strength, she’s a nice foil to Daisy.
Perhaps my favorite woman in this novel is Catherine. We all remember Myrtle as being the car-crash victim (and Tom’s lover) but I don’t think her sister was a big part of the original story. Here, she’s surprisingly at the center of it–to be honest, I kind of always wondered how fancy-shmancy Tom got involved with a mechanic’s wife, and Catherine’s role in Fools explains it beautifully. She’s the ribbon that you didn’t expect to tie together (most) of the book, and for that reason, she’s incredibly interesting to me. I always think it’s fun in these reimagined classics to give voice to those overlooked characters, and Cantor does it beautifully.
The whole book is beautiful–from the cover to the characters to the plot. Oh, real quick, I also thought that Cantor’s take on the men’s personas was interesting. Granted, we don’t see much of the OG narrator, Nick, but Gatsby is a little more… well, both sad and off-putting than I expected. I also don’t really remember Tom as being much more than a boring cheater, but in this one, ooh, I loathed him!
This is just such a well thought out, well written book, I do think it has an appeal for most readers. Obviously, Gatsby fans will be intrigued (I’m sure there are some purists who will have opinions), but there are element of sisterhood/feminism, mystery, romance, history; in short, it’s got a little of everything. I thought the pacing was good, the ending was perhaps a little quick and the exposition a little long, but since this book almost serves as a prequel-companion, I really didn’t mind that. The only thing that threw me–and this was very slight/me being nit-picky–was that the last few paragraphs slipped into present tense a few times. I get that it’s like Daisy moving forward, putting the whole Gatsby chapter of her life behind her, but the fact that the rest of the book was exclusively past tense, phrases like “Now, our train rolls through…” or “The train slows and I clutch my handbag…” (245), albeit sweet, seemed almost out of place to me.
Overall, I do highly recommend this book and I am so thankful to The Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop for sending it my way.
That’s all I’ve got for now! Next week, I have another advanced reader copy (thanks TWJ!), so look out for my posts on Yonder by Ali Standish, which is set to be released in May.