As you know if you’ve read this blog, I’m always interested in new takes on original material, updating old stories and turning them around to see hidden sides of them, so I was eager to read Jilian Cantor’s Beautiful Little Fools, which is a version of The Great Gatsby which views the story through the lens of the women characters.
The question I always have to ask is, could you follow this book if you didn’t know the original? In the case of Beautiful Little Fools, I think you could follow the plot well enough and keep track of the characters and what’s happening when, but I definitely think you’d be losing something if you weren’t already familiar with the story of Gatsby. Knowing the original and watching the characters here gives a depth to this book that wouldn’t really be there if you were reading this story cold.
Daisy Buchanan, Jay Gatsby’s love object and the person he built his identity around, is one of the main characters here, as is Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend, who in the original story was seeing Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book (though it was never clear how serious either Nick or Jordan was about the other). Myrtle Wilson, a minor character in Gatsby whose death leads to the tragic conclusion of the book, also gets to narrate a few chapters from her own perspective, but much of her story is provided by her sister, Catherine, whose perspective on Myrtle’s marriage and her affair with Tom Buchanan is sharp and angry. Catherine wasn’t really a character in Gatsby at all, but here she’s given a whole life that contrasts with her sister’s. Catherine might be a little more modern than a woman of her time would be, but a suffragist living in Manhattan would probably be a lot more liberal about alcohol and sex than a woman who married young and lived in the sticks (I really wish she’d referred to herself as a suffragist rather than a suffragette, but that’s just a private bugbear of mine).
The only narrator who’s not a woman is a detective, Frank Charles, and he’s the one character who doesn’t exist in the original. The detective is investigating Gatsby’s death even though it seemed perfectly straightforward that George Wilson, the widower of the woman whom Gatsby supposedly killed, shot Gatsby in revenge and then shot himself. The author here drops a diamond studded hairpin near the pool where Gatsby’s body was found, and has Meyer Wolfsheim (a real life shady character and a friend of Gatsby’s in the book) hire the detective to find out what actually happened to Gatsby, to get justice, or at least closure. Charles’ investigation takes him to each of the three surviving women, and we can compare what they tell us with what they tell him, and, more importantly, what they don’t tell him, because Daisy, Jordan and Catherine all had a relationship of one sort or another with Jay Gatsby, and any one of them could have been the one who shot him.
Still, while the issue of the murder is a spine that winds through the book and keeps us asking questions along with the detective, the book itself isn’t really a mystery. It’s more of a feminist reimagining of The Great Gatsby, filling in the backgrounds of the main female characters and asking questions about what a woman’s role was in the 1920’s and what her choices could be. This is, I think, why we have Catherine as a character, to act as a foil to both Myrtle and Daisy, who believe that a woman doesn’t have a life outside of a man, to suggest that there were people who had more modern ideas of how a woman could live without compromising herself too much.
Daisy comes across as a more complete person, certainly, than the careless person in The Great Gatsby. Her background, the loss of her father and sister, her mother’s situation after Daisy’s father dies, sets her up as the kind of person who would allow someone like Tom Buchanan to court and marry her, the kind of woman who would turn a blind eye repeatedly to his infidelities because she feels she doesn’t have any alternatives.
More interesting is Jordan Baker’s character. She’s an independent woman as well, a professional golfer, a woman who’s not attached to any man, even if she does date Nick a few times here and there. Here Jordan is a lesbian in a world where the revelation of her sexuality would destroy her. It’s suggested that the scandal surrounding her in the golf world – the claim she cheated in a tournament – was actually created out of whole cloth by the authorities who wanted to keep someone so “aberrant” out of the golf world. This secret of hers makes her vulnerable to blackmail, a key to the plot.
And here we come to one of my – not problems, issues, perhaps – with the book. There’s plenty of basis to see Tom Buchanan as the entitled jerk he comes across as here; in Gatsby he’s a boor and a racist and a philanderer who believes his money makes him a better person than anyone else. And you don’t have to stretch too far to see George Wilson as an abusive husband who locks his wife away when he thinks she’s seeing someone else. It’s even possible to see Jay Gatsby as a delusional person who won’t take no for an answer, from Daisy or from any other woman, and make him into a “nice guy” who’s abusive to the women in his life while pretending to be otherwise.
It’s more of a stretch, though, to make him the kind of malicious person he comes across as in this version, and doing that takes away much of the poignance of the original book. If he actually was responsible for Myrtle’s death, and didn’t just take the blame for what Daisy did, then his death is more justified (whoever killed him, and I’m not spoiling that), and he’s diminished as a character (and as a symbol).
Basically all the men in the book, with the one exception of Detective Charles, are bullies (Nick Carraway is barely present in the book, so he doesn’t count). I can see the basis for setting things up this way, but I think it takes away from the depth and compassion and complexity of the women characters, who are so well drawn, if the ultimate message is that all men are jerks and women have to deal with that.
Ideally you should read this right after reading The Great Gatsby, to get dual perspectives on the events in the original book and on the world of 1920’s America, especially among the rich and nouveau riche. I don’t think Beautiful Little Fools is a better book than Gatsby, but I do think it’s a rewarding and intriguing take on one of the Great American Novels.