BEAUTIFUL LITTLE FOOLS: THE WOMEN OF THE GREAT GATSBY

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. 

FIELD NOTES GOES TO THE WOLVES FOR MARCH

Not only was the Field Notes’ February selection, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory, good for sparking discussion about funerary practices and what we do NOT want done to our bodies after our deaths, but it also inspired the Field Notes Book Group to talk about death in general and about memorials and funerals we’ve experienced personally.  It was a great discussion (and made me think about the time we read and discussed Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, which touched on some of the same subjects from a different perspective), and we all enjoyed it.  We then had a slightly difficult time choosing our next book, but we ended up deciding on Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy, which we’ll be discussing on March 19.

Once There Were Wolves is a novel about the rewilding of the Scottish Highlands, and about relationships between predators and prey – of all different types.  Inti Finn is a biologist leading a group of biologists attempting to reintroduce wolves into the Highlands.  The idea is that wolves, which were originally the top predator in that ecosystem, would restore the balance of nature there as it did in Yellowstone in America.  However, the people in the area are sheep herders and are understandably concerned that the wolves will go after their sheep (and their children) rather than the deer.  In addition to this pressure, Inti is also concerned about her twin sister, Aggie, whom she brought with her from their last posting in Alaska.  Something very bad happened to Aggie in Alaska, and Aggie is now mute as a result.  When a local man is killed, Inti believes that the wolves will be blamed, whether they had anything to do with the death or not, and so she takes steps to protect the wolves, steps which will come back to haunt her in the long run.

It should be a fascinating book, and I’m sure it will inspire some deep and passionate discussions, so if you can join us on March 19, please do.

FIELD OF MYSTERY FOR MARCH: NO ONE WILL MISS HER

After a rousing discussion about Victorians’ attitudes toward death and class and other fascinating issues raised by our February book, Inspector of the Dead, the Field of Mystery Group turned to the difficult question of what book we’re going to read for our March 5 meeting. 

After two rounds of voting, we agreed on the Edgar Award nominated book, No One Will Miss Her, by Kat Rosenfield.  Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk presently.

No One Will Miss Her takes place in rural Maine, a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business and a man who moves there and lives there for forty years is still considered a newcomer.  The book begins with a fire in the local junkyard, which leads to the discovery of the body of Lizzie Oulette, the town reject.  Her probably abusive husband has vanished as well, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find out what happened, except that things aren’t necessarily what they seem.  The book is narrated by different characters, including Lizzie from beyond the grave (an interesting perspective on events), and the case turns on the interesting relationship between Lizzie the outcast and the woman who rents Lizzie’s house for a vacation home.  That woman, Adrienne Richards, seems to be everything Lizzie is not: successful, beautiful, married, a well-known social influencer.  Did she have anything to do with Lizzie’s death?  How?

Join us on March 5 for what should be a fascinating discussion of an intriguing mystery, a different take on the trope of the missing girl.

NEW ROMANTIC COMEDIES FOR VALENTINE’S DAY (AND AFTER)

So it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and what could be more apropos than reading a good new romantic comedy in time for Valentine’s Day?  Luckily for you, The Field Library has several new romantic comedies, just waiting to be taken out and enjoyed.

Let’s start with one of the classic tropes. Bet you can guess what the inspiration for Ramon and Julieta, by Alana Quintana Albertson, is.  Ramon is a go-getter, a man who achieves all his goals, from getting an Ivy League education to making his father’s taco empire bigger and better. So when the beautiful woman who stole his heart on the Dia de los Muertos disappears, he fully intends to find her again.  The woman in question is Julieta, a celebrity chef who’s doing everything in her power to keep her family’s sea to table taqueria viable.  Imagine her surprise when she discovers that her new landlord, who is planning to buy the building in which she has her business, is the sexy man she met on the Dia de los Muertos and for whom she fell so hard. Worse yet, his father stole her mother’s taco recipe and used that to create his empire of Taco King restaurants, so there’s great animosity between the two families to begin with, and the likelihood that his family is going to replace Julieta’s family’s restaurant with another Taco King just makes things worse.  Can the pair find their way to a happily ever after with all the tensions between their families and differences between their backgrounds?   

Perhaps you’d prefer another trope, the second chance at love.  If so, Count Your Lucky Stars, by Alexandria Bellefleur, should be right up your alley.  Margot Cooper is burned out on love, and prefers her one night stands to any possibility of a relationship.  This puts her in an awkward position when her friends get engaged and ask her to be the Best Woman.  Things get much more complicated when, touring the wedding venue, she recognizes the wedding planner as Olivia Grant, the woman who first broke Margot’s heart and who, apparently, still has the power to make Margot’s heart race.  Olivia, for her part, never expected to see Margot again, and then, to make things more complicated still, Olivia’s living arrangements fall through and Margot invites her to stay temporarily in Margot’s spare room.  Close proximity with her first love makes Margot think seriously about that no-commitment policy of hers.  Is it possible she and Olivia can take advantage of their second chance together?

Then there’s always the opposites-attract trope which is always fun in romantic comedies.  If that’s your sweet spot, check out Lease on Love by Falon Ballard. Both Sadie and Jack are in a bad place in their lives, though for different reasons.  Sadie has just been passed over for a big promotion at work and lost her apartment as well.  Jack’s parents died suddenly and recently and he’s completely lost. When Sadie, looking for a one night stand, accidentally confuses a rental app for a dating app (I’ve never used either kind of app myself, so I’m not sure how easy that would be to do, but there is alcohol involved, which certainly helps), she finds herself at Jack’s brownstone in Brooklyn.  Jack doesn’t quite know what to make of bubbly Sadie, but he’s willing to let her use his spare room, and she makes herself at home, making Jack feel more at home in the process.  They are polar opposites in many respects, but could they discover that each one of them is just what the other needs?

If you’ve read any romantic comedies, you know the answer to each of these questions is an enthusiastic yes.  Give yourself the pleasure of finding out how these couples get to their happily ever afters for a good Valentine’s Day read.

A BEAUTIFUL MEMOIR: THE COST OF LIVING

I’m not big on reading memoirs in general.  Too often I feel as if the writer has had one unusual experience and is making the most of it, and too often I feel the writer is too young to be able to reflect intelligently on their experiences in general.  There are exceptional memoirs, of course: Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, was brilliant and funny and poignant at the same time, and there have been others that blew me away, but on the whole I tend to steer clear of memoirs as a genre.  

However, I just read a jewel of a memoir, one that reminds me of how good the genre can be in the right hands.  The Cost of Living, by Deborah Levy, is a very short, incredibly well written account of a relatively short period in the writer’s life, brought to vivid life.  It’s the kind of book I read slowly (I am not a slow reader in general, as you might have guessed from all my reviews) because I wanted to savor her language and her way of looking at the world.

The book is about the period right after she and her husband decided to separate, with their children staying with her.  It is not, I hasten to add, one of those stories about how terrible her ex is and what drove her to leave; on the whole, she and her husband seem to have been incredibly adult and mature about their separation and she never badmouths him at all, even to throw a little shade at him after the fact. This by itself is remarkable to me.  Seldom have I encountered a book involving a marital separation where both people are civilized and the focus is not on the wrongs done to the protagonist but on how she finds her way to a new life in a new role in society, but this is one of those books.

Levy is an excellent writer, and now that I’ve read this I’m going to look for her fiction as well (she wrote two Man Booker Prize finalist novels, so  she definitely knows what she’s doing).  She starts the book with an incident she witnessed in which a young woman is telling a story to a man who obviously considers her a minor character in his life and not a major character in her own, or even a person who has her own life (this I am a little sensitized to after reading “Midwestern Girl Is Tired of Appearing in Your Stories”, from Shit Cassandra Saw).  This sets the tone for the book, which is about finding a way to become a major character in your life story when the world around you sees you, at best, as a supporting character.

She describes the place she and her daughters live in after the separation, the shack she uses for her writing (not a she shed by any means but I was a little jealous of it, lack of heat and all), her electric bicycle she uses to travel around London, her friends and acquaintances, and she makes it all real and immediate.  She talks about other writers and their work in a way that makes it clear these are her friends and colleagues even if they’re dead (like Emily Dickinson), and it’s clear she belongs in their company from the way she writes. 

For such a short book (only 134 pages), The Cost of Living is filled with wisdom, lovely insights, beautiful prose and a sense of a real person dealing in a dignified and openhearted way with the world.  I heartily recommend it.

THE DARK SIDE OF WAYWARD CHILDREN: WHERE THE DROWNED GIRLS GO

Seanan McGuire has a new book out in her award winning Wayward Children series, Where the Drowned Girls Go, and, being a massive fan of the series, I read it and enjoyed it (more, if I’m being honest, than I enjoyed Across the Green Grass Fields, which was the last one in the series).  

If you are already deep into this wonderful fantasy series, I need say no more.  If you have not read anything in the Wayward Children series, DO NOT start with this book. You might be able to get a sense of the story even if you know nothing about the characters and what happened in other books, but you will miss a lot.  Start at the beginning, Every Heart a Doorway, and continue through the books in order, and not only will you be ready to read this book (they’re all novellas, so this will not take a lot of time), but you will have discovered a whole series of amazing and different worlds and you’ll thank me for introducing you. You’re welcome.

Now, turning to Where the Drowned Girls Go, you would think that at this point, in book 7 of the series, there wouldn’t be a lot of surprises waiting for you, but you’d be wrong.  All along we’ve been following characters who are staying at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where the children who went through doors into other worlds and then were returned to this world and couldn’t give up their dream of returning to their other worlds went.  That is, by the way, such a brilliant idea for a series that I’m still surprised nobody else ever set something like this up, but I digress.

It turns out, however, that Eleanor West’s home is not the only place children who have been returned from other worlds go.  There’s another place, which we hadn’t heard of until this book, called the Whitethorn Institute. Its goal is not to give children a place to heal until they can return to their preferred worlds. Its goal is to get the children who are institutionalized there to reject their former worlds and adjust themselves to this as the only reality.  It is, as you might guess, a pretty grim and disturbing place, in many ways the opposite of the Home for Wayward Children, but our protagonist, Cora, feels she has to go there, until (of course) she gets there and sees what kind of place it is, and then it might be too late for her to go anywhere else.

This is where you need to have read the other books to understand where Cora is coming from. Formerly a “fat girl”, she once tried to drown herself and instead found her way to The Trenches, a world in which she became a mermaid, and a hero.  That’s not in any of the earlier books, by the way.  We met her in Come Tumbling Down, when she joined her friends at Eleanor West’s to engage in a forbidden quest that took them to The Moors, a terrifying place that H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe would have loved.  In the course of that quest, Cora dove into the seas on that world, and came to the attention of The Drowned Gods, who still have a hold on her even after she’s returned to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.  Haunted and terrified by the Drowned Gods, beset by nightmares she can’t escape, Cora no longer wants to return to The Trenches because she’s afraid she’ll end up getting pulled back to The Moors instead, Cora decides she needs to go somewhere she’ll learn how to forget all these different worlds, and so, reluctantly, Eleanor West agrees to transfer her to the Whitethorn Institute.

She’s joined there by Sumi, whom we met in Beneath the Sugar Sky, and Regan, from Across the Green Grass Fields, has also been sent here after her return to the “normal” world.  Between the bland food, the terrible classes, the isolation and punishments, the forbidding nameless Matrons and the truly creepy headmaster, the Whitethorn Institute is a dreadful place and it doesn’t take long for Cora to decide she wants to escape, even though her nightmares are receding there.  

How she and her friends and companions deal with the Whitethorn Institute, what they discover about how it works (and why – that was one of the more interesting tidbits, almost a throwaway, when the headmaster mentions why it’s so important to break these children of their memories of their magical pasts.  I always love it when there’s a reason for the antagonist’s behavior beyond just “they’re evil”), makes for a compelling book that deals with the after-effects of trauma, bullying and what makes a hero, as well as telling a fast-moving and emotionally affecting story.  

If you’re a fan of the Wayward Children, this is one of the best in the series. If you’re not a fan, what are you waiting for?  Check out Every Heart a Doorway and the sequels and prepare to be blown away.