Sunday, December 11, 2016

Great by Sara Benicasa

Then she did something I'll never forget. The girl stood up, facing the lake. The white light from the laptop screen lent her face an unearthly glow from below as she stretched out her arms toward the twinkling houselights in the distance. She held it for a long moment, like some kind of yoga pose, just reaching and reaching for something I couldn't identify. Then, after what seemed like hours, she scooped up her laptop and went into the house, leaving me a lone in the moon-drenched yard. 
Sara Benicasa gives us a gender bent Great Gatsby in her YA novel Great. Naomi Rye is our narrator, and like Nick Carraway, gives us an outsider view on both Jacinta Trimalchio (famous, super rich fashion blogger and Gatsby stand-in) and the opulent lives of teens summering in East Hampton. 

The book stays close enough to Gatsby that you know what's coming, but Benicasa's twists make it fun and engaging. I loved the references scattered throughout: Trimalchio (the early title of The Great Gatsby), the Rye/Carraway (seeds!) parallel, and the green light of a laptop charger replacing Daisy's green light. I generally enjoyed the modernization of Gatsby's ostentation and wealth (as well as his depravity and hidden past).

There are few translated scenes that fell a little flat--the first was a scene in which Delila (the Daisy stand-in) first comes to Jacinta's home. Where Daisy dissolves into tears over a pile of Gatsby's beautiful shirts, the collection Jacinta has amassed for Delila is a closet full of Birkin bags. Here's the Gatsby scene:
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
...and the Great scene:
In response, Jacinta flung open the door to reveal a set of display shelves, dramatically lit from above. On the shelves was a series of similar looking handbags in a rainbow of colors. They didn't look too impressive to me, but Delilah seemed bowled over. She stared at the bags, her blue eyes filling with tears.
"They're--they're so beautiful," she said softly, her voice catching a little. "They're all Birkins, aren't they?"
Jacinta nodded.
I've always read this scene in Gatsby as Daisy mourning the change in Jay and the path not travelled. She's saddened by the contrast between the person he's become and the person he was, and is realizing it won't work out, even before their affair really begins. The fact that he would do all this for her is too much, and it's overwhelming and beautiful and sad, and I just love this scene. I realize there is a reading that paints her as a materialistic whore, regretting her choices because Gatsby's rich now, and she can't have him, but I've never read it that way. When you get to this part of Great, you don't know the back story yet, and the scene is somewhat glossed over. Later, Naomi finds out that part of Jacinta and Dalila's friendship as little girls revolved around having matching Birkin bags, and the closet is a nod to their past. That really grossed me out. Who gives small children $15,000 purses? How is this a thing? This choice plays up the materialistic side of this scene so much that it took away any chance at nostalgia or sweetness and left me just hating everyone (which I realize you're kind of supposed to do in Gatsby as well, but I was never fully able to). The backstory also takes away from some of the more interesting dynamics at play in the original. Rather than a rags to riches story, Benicasa gives us a riches to rags to riches story, making Jacinta a little less interesting and a little less compelling.

Great managed to avoid some of the sappy, self-conscious prose that YA novels are prone to, and Naomi is a far better developed (and more sympathetic) character than Nick ever was. I enjoyed her crazy mother (newly rich cupcake tycoon), agro lesbian best friend, and her biting observations of the wealth surrounding her. More explicitly than Nick, she is a critic. She remains more of an outsider and has far more internality and depth than Nick.

This was a fun read. The end jumps the shark a little, but it's well imagined and an entertaining revisiting of a great story.