Monday, April 21, 2014

Great by Sara Benincasa: A Review

Goodreads Blurb:
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 been waiting for this book for months. A retelling of The Great Gatsby? Yes please. Unlike 99% of my classmates, I’ve been in love with that book since eighth grade English lit. Great is a quick read—I devoured it in one evening, kind of like the original. And it certainly was entertaining.

Still, I had a problem with this book, a problem it took me a while to articulate. Since I have a long-standing love affair with the original, I couldn’t tell you if I enjoyed it based on its own merits as a novel, or only because I kept drawing parallels to The Great Gatsby all along.

And those parallels are there, and they’re fun. The book is pretty much a by-the-letter retelling where outdated elements are replaced with the closest modern equivalent. (Naomi Rye (Rye? Seriously??) as Nick, Delilah as Daisy, Jacinta as Jay Gatsby, and so on—all the characters have the same initials as the original.) I had tons of fun retracing the plot lines and story elements.

Maybe that was the problem.

A retelling is supposed to be more than just a re-telling. It has to be a reimagining, a familiar story told in a new way. And in that regard, I didn’t feel like Great measured up.

For sure, there’s the lesbian love affair, a great way of modernizing the class conflict that’s at the heart of The Great Gatsby. A daughter of a well-known Republican politician who falls for a female fashion blogger—ooh, piquant.

Yet that storyline, which should have been driving the novel, was sadly underexploited-- just like many other aspects of the original that could have used some poking around. For example, the blatantly obvious homoerotic attraction between Nick and Gatsby—seriously, read it! But even the central lesbian relationship is about as profound as a sheet of paper, and falls just as flat. It feels like it was written for shock value alone. (That never works. Especially on teens.)

Since the story sticks so close to the original, it leaves no wiggle room for things like developing secondary characters. Myrtle, I mean Misti, was a stick figure, and so was Delilah’s evil, Republican boyfriend and the guy who was the stand-in for Jordan Baker—I forgot his name. I just called him Jordan in my head throughout. As a quick Wiki search will tell you, F. Scott Fitzgerald was far from a model human being himself, and boy do his prejudices and opinions show up in the novel. A true reimagining would have been the perfect way to drag them out into the sunlight and play with them.  I think it could have made for a very complex and interesting deconstruction of The Great Gatsby rather than just a retelling.

I’m conflicted about this book. On one hand, it was an entertaining read, but on the other, it lacked the depth I would expect from the retelling of a book like The Great Gatsby. So I give this book three and a half stars, rounded up to three.

This book should have been Great. Instead, it was… okay.

(Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.)

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