Review: Great by Sara Benincasa

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Everyone loves a good scandal.

Naomi Rye usually dreads spending the summer with her socialite mother at her East Hampton home. And this year is no different. Naomi sticks out like a sore thumb with her Chicago accent and her Doc Martens, and she has no patience for the snooty sons and daughters of the mega rich.

But despite her reluctance to join the lavish social circle, Naomi is captivated by her mysterious next-door neighbor, Jacinta. The extravagant parties Jacinta throws are the social events of the summer, and loner Naomi suddenly finds herself with not only a new best friend but a possibly-could-be-probably boyfriend. But Jacinta has her own reasons for drawing close to Naomi, and they include the beautiful and untouchable Delilah Fairweather, a family friend of Naomi’s and Upper East Side royalty.

As the summer days slip by, Naomi discovers that Jacinta’s carefully constructed world is hiding something huge, a secret that could undo everything. And Naomi must decide how far she is willing to be pulled into this web of lies and deception before she is unable to escape.

Title: Great
Author: Sara Benincasa
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Publisher: HarperTeen
Pages: 272
Copy Origin: Review copy from Edelweiss

The Great Gatsby is one of the few books from high school that I actually liked reading even after we analyzed it half to death. Maybe because it’s the most accessible and uncomplicated of Fitzgerald’s books. Or that the narrative of desire and the noveau riche in America’s mobile class is still relevant in the current economic situation.

When I found out that there was going to be a YA retelling of The Great Gatsby, my immediate thought was “Well, at least they can’t screw it up as much as Baz Luhrmann did?” Which is saying something, because the 2013 film is half spot-on (particularly with the visuals) and half heaping hot mess that sails so far away from the point. But the idea of a YA retelling of this book did hold some interest for me, plus the fact that nearly all the roles except for Daisy were going to be gender-flipped. Jay Gatsby is now the mysterious blogger Jacinta Trimalchio (I see what Benincasa did there); Nick is now Naomi Rye, a Chicagoan girl who’s stuck summering with her wanna-be socialite mother, and so on and so forth. Even the setting has been updated to the much more current East Hamptons.

And admittedly, I was really hesitant when I started this book, thinking that it could either be a half decent retelling that tries, or a hot mess that just fails. And while there are ridiculous moments at certain points, it’s more because Benincasa is replacing the most well-known images of the book with their modern day updates. Like the iconic green light in here is now the charger of Jacinta’s laptop. Or even more narmatastic, the All-Seeing Eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleberg has now been replaced with the leering gaze of Doctor Zazzle, Plastic Surgeon. The original symbolic billboard was already anvilicious, and the replacement in Great only makes it more ridiculous.

That said. This is a lot better than I expected or even had thought when I first started reading the book. Once the plot moved into the meat of the Gatsby story, Benincasa gives her characters a life and motivations of their own, and actually manages to update the story quite skillfully for the 21st century. Making Jacinta into a lesbian with a desire to be reunited with Delilah Fairweather gives it an even more interesting angle, although problematic elements arise given what novel that’s been updated.

The beginning of the book does take its time to find its footing and pacing, which is where a lot of the more awkward parallels with the original novel happen. Once Naomi meets the enigmatic Jacinta, the plot moves forward more naturally, instead of trying to match Fitzgerald’s plot points one for one. There are still points where certain moments are updated or changed to fit the updated setting and the change of characters. (Gatsby’s beautiful shirts are changed to Birkin purses, for example.) What does help is that Naomi does have a subplot of her own, dealing with her mother’s social climbing in to the East Hampton set and pushing Naomi to be a part of it as well. Naomi is already more cynical of the upper classes than her Jazz Age inspiration, but she’s still easily charmed by Jacinta, and becomes more curious about the tangled past between Jacinta and Delilah.

Although the relationship between Jacinta and Delilah does come off as problematic in regards to portraying LBGTQ characters, it does work within the setting. I do really wish that Jacinta’s sexuality was further explored, as opposed to being obsessed with Delilah, but given the nature of the book, I understand why Jacinta’s history isn’t fully delved into. Delilah’s characterization throughout the plot is really well done. Being that she’s the daughter of a conservative US senator, Delilah is charming and polite to Naomi, and when her true colors begin to show, we see how ruthless Delilah can be towards Jacinta.

But what’s interesting about Jacinta’s and Delilah’s relationship is that Benincasa keeps the class division at the forefront of the plot. The idea of the newly rich being considered as trying to buy their way into the upper class may not seem important nowadays, but it is actually still a thing. And especially when you get into the very old money attitudes of the Hamptons set.

It’s not even with Jacinta’s past and how her family made their fortune, it’s sprinkled in throughout with the other characters. Naomi’s mother changed her last name from Gryzkowski to Rye to fit in better. Misti and Giovanni, two country club staff members, are from Staten Island and are regularly abused by Teddy and his friends. Jeffrey’s (the Jordan stand-in) father is a white owner of a hip-hop label, and his Jewish background is seen as funny and charming by his friends. Nowadays, we tend to think of these things as antiquated and only acceptable in period novels, not a book that talks about fashion bloggers and cell phones. Even though there is a major discussion of the class division in the United States going on right now, there’s probably teenagers who don’t realize that this sort of thing still exists. Even Delilah, who starts off charming and being nice to Naomi, nearly ends up with getting away with involuntary manslaughter. (This is one benefit to setting The Great Gatsby in the modern day—there’s more of the idea that the upperclass characters will get punished for their actions. We never see the fallout, but it’s unlikely that Delilah will be able to take off to Europe until the whole investigation blows over.)

There are some moments in the book that don’t work—as I said, most of the times Benincasa goes one-for-one against the original book, it draws a lot of attention to the obvious parallels. But I think that Benincasa does an admirable job of not only updating a work of the modern –era literary canon (especially as one as iconic), but also recasting the characters to the versions here. It’s a fascinating exploration of not only the characters, but present-day attitudes of the class divide. And giving Naomi more of a plotline rather than just blithely observing and commenting on the hypocrisies of the upper class adds a lot more to her character and endears her more to the reader. Although the pacing is off—the beginning feels awkward, and the ending’s a little too rushed and too neatly tied up—Benincasa’s prose is still strong enough to engage and pull the reader in. It only took me a day and a half to get through the whole thing, because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Even knowing all of the plot points and reveals, I wanted to see how they were going to work in this setting.

This had the potential to be a complete mess of a book—an ambitious mess, I’ll grant you, but a mess all the same. I’m really happy that it wasn’t, and I really enjoyed it, despite the problematic elements of the main relationship. (At the same time, though… look, when you make the Daisy character sympathetic, you’re missing the point of the original book, Luhrmann.) And by drawing attention to the economical discussion rather than solely focusing on the romantic relationship, I think Benincasa is able to hold her own in regards to this being a YA retelling. I really enjoyed reading this (despite the occasional groan or eye-roll), and the fact that Great was much better than what I was expecting going in definitely deserves a toast.

 

Laura Martinelli is a writer and bookseller from Pittsburgh, PA. When she’s not ranting on Twitter and Tumblr, you can find her books at Smashwords and Amazon.

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