June 23, 2014

Review: Great

Great By Sara Benincasa
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Review copy

Confession: I don't really like THE GREAT GATSBY.  I find Scott Fitzgerald's prose overly self-conscious and I found the love story off putting.  But when I heard about a lesbian YA retelling, I couldn't resist.  GREAT transplants the original Jazz Age novel to the modern Hamptons and keeps the plot almost wholesale while eliding or confusing some of the themes.

I didn't expect the original themes to be kept intact; I expected the modern, lesbian update to play around and perhaps comment on them.  I didn't feel any commentary though, just a sort of remainder of rich vs. poor, upper class vs. low, without any sort of old money vs. new money remaining.  Narrator Naomi's new money mother is pretty accepted in the Hamptons, as is Naomi herself.

GREAT also didn't feel like it lived up to the promise of being a lesbian THE GREAT GATSBY.  Naomi, the narrator, is straight.  GREAT takes almost half the novel before Jacinta (Gatsby) and Delilah (Daisy) meet.  When they do, it is a case of obsessed meeting self obsessed.  Even the characters point out that it isn't much of a love story.  Neither Jacinta nor Delilah like or love anything about who the other really is.  At least there was some sense of requited love in THE GREAT GATSBY.  The main change Delilah's bisexuality and Jacinta's lesbianism add to the novel is a chance for Teddy (Tom) to add homophobia to his suite of unattractive attributes.

It's hard for me to judge GREAT on its own.  As I said, I don't like THE GREAT GATSBY, but I thought I might enjoy something playing off of it in a modern way.  I felt like GREAT kept most of the elements I didn't like and made changes that just made me less likely to dislike the novel.  Jay Gatsby might have been a little nuts, but he was also a force of nature.  Jacinta Trimalchio is definitely a little off, and I just wanted someone to help her find a good therapist.  Delilah's sole redeeming quality is that she's nice to Naomi.

I did like Sara Benincasa's style.  I'd be willing to try a different book by her.  I'd even read the book about Skags, Naomi's butch best friend back home in Chicago, romancing the head cheerleader over the summer.  That rarely referenced sub-subplot intrigued me far more than a rehashing a novel that never quite manages to make me thing that the updates to the original work.  GREAT was a touch too faithful, instead of finding its own voice.

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