They (whoever ‘they’ are) often say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Well, as it turns out, you can. The cover for The Chosen and the Beautiful promises a story of magic, glamour and decadence set between between the two great wars … and the book pretty much delivers.
Meet the sometimes-heroine of our story, Jordan Baker: taken from Vietnam as a child and raised by the old-money Baker clan as something of a socialite (that seems to be her actual job).
Jordan enjoys wealth, a wide circle of friends of both sexes whom she dances, drinks and sleeps with as the mood takes her. She plays golf (no wait, maybe that’s her actual job …) and occasionally dabbles in magic: Jordan has the ability to bring paper cuttings to like. She’s not very good at it – she crosses paths with other Vietnamese who’re a lot better at it. Still, she uses her ability to dig herself and her sometimes friend/sometimes lover Daisy out of situations that are not necessarily dangerous, but could have made their social standing somewhat precarious.
The turning point in Jordan’s story happens when she is sucked into the orbit of Jay Gatsby (yes, that Jay Gatsby) as he attempts to lure Daisy away from her dick of a husband, Tom …
This book is all about the writing; Jordan tells her story like a 200-page poem. The level of detail here is extraordinary, and I think the sense of place is the book’s strongest point. The mansions, the lives of non-stop hedonism completely untouched by the poverty, civil unrest and racism that taps on their bubble without really piercing it. Jordan doesn’t see herself as being non-white, just exotic.
As a character, she spends an awful lot of time describing her clothes, which just adds to her hedonist personae, and all her friends are seen through her point of view. They do change over the course of the book, but because Jordan is quite self-obsessed, the changes are less subtle than they appear to be. You just have to concentrate to see them.
The story builds slowly, and while you’re lost in the fantastic writing, you suddenly realise you’re heading for something of a showdown, then a shock discovery … then another, and another.
But in the end, Jordan is little more than an engaged observer, so her growth as a character was a little disappointing, definitely overshadowed by those around her. In many ways the book reminded me of Rules of Civility: sumptuous prose, with strong female leads constrained by the era they’re living in.
The Chosen and the Beautiful blends ghosts and magic into a decadent story, beautifully told.