“‘I always thought it was us women who were the fools,’ I whispered. ‘But I was wrong, it’s been the men all along…'”
I am so excited to share yet another retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with all of you. Due to this classic recently entering the public domain, this is already the second retelling I have been privileged to read over the last few months (please see my previous post for the title The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo for another great retelling). While I enjoyed Vo’s version of events, I have to admit I liked Jillian Cantor’s Beautiful Little Fools even more, so let’s dive right in!
As a brief recap for the original narrative, The Great Gatsby is set over the course of one summer during the Roaring Twenties on Long Island (New York) and primarily revolves around Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man of great wealth, and Daisy Buchanan, a beautiful socialite he falls in love with before going off to war. Taking place a few years after their initial meeting, this book picks up with Daisy having married a wealthy and unfaithful husband (Tom Buchanan) and Nick Carraway, Daisy’s distant cousin, unknowingly moving next door to the lavish mansion of Jay Gatsby. Before long, Nick plays a key role in reuniting Daisy and Gatsby once again.
While Fitzgerald’s story lends Nick the sole perspective as narrator, this retelling features three female voices: the aforementioned Daisy; Jordan, Daisy’s best friend from childhood; and Catherine, the sister of Myrtle Wilson (Myrtle is a rather major character in the original, while Catherine is not). While each of these characters is in the original story, the text never reveals their thoughts and backstories, forcing readers to assume their motives, so this shift in storytelling turns the original on its heels and lends the female leads a complexity that truly makes this book one of my top reads of the year thus far.
As an example, while Daisy is originally characterized as superficial and driven by materialistic motives, this story reveals a tragic past forcing her to to sacrifice her love in order to care for her family. In Jordan’s case, rather than a scandalous golfer appearing to be unsympathetic to Nick’s innocent advances, she is forced to navigate making her father proud on the course while hiding her love for a fellow female golfer on the tour. Lastly, while Catherine is merely mentioned as another body at a party in the original, she is a strong and passionate suffragette who refuses to give up her ambitions and be suffocated by the societal expectations to marry and become a mother.
In addition to exposing the thoughts, motives, and backstories of the women, Cantor also flips the script by giving readers the female insight on the male characters. For instance, while I tend to think of Gatsby’s character as a desperate and naïve lover, but in a sort of innocuous way (especially when compared to characters like Tom Buchanan), this retelling portrays Gatsby not as a blameless lover, but as manipulative, possessive, and, in some moments, predatory. The only male perspective presented in this retelling is that of a detective who suspects one of these women of being the true culprit behind Gatsby’s murder (did I mention this version has murder mystery flair?).
All in all, this retelling has bestowed power and agency to several new literary voices and given the women in this story the nuances and complexity they deserve. Cantor did a masterful job of taking a renowned classic and recasting it in her own compelling way!
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