Monday, 12 January 2015

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list from which to pick, of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by Téa.

I had read The Great Gatsby before, but it was long before I started writing reviews. In fact, the first time I ever read it was for my grade 10 English class. I can't say I remembered much about it, but that's true for a lot of books I read in high school English, with a few notable exceptions.  I read it again a couple of years ago, and here I am now, ready to try to review a classic. It's a little daunting.

This was also the first book I read on our iPad, because I couldn't find my paper copy of it when I went looking, and it was free. As far as I could tell, it was the full text. It's not the first thing I've read on a reader, it just meant I had to wrest the iPad out of my husband's hands every time I wanted to sit down with it.

And now I've put the review off long enough. So, what did I think of The Great Gatsby? It's a great book, obviously. The writing is beautiful and poignant. The characters are, by far and large, irritating rich people, and their follies are worked out through pain for other people.

I'm sure you all know the story. Nick, the narrator, moves in next door to Party Central, Jay Gatsby's house, a man with all the wealth in the world and a million stories about how he got it. His raucous parties mean little to Gatsby himself, though. He's only concerned about attracting the attention of Daisy, who lives across a narrow strip of water, his sweetheart before he went off to war.

Daisy is married to a rich asshole, Tom, who in the tradition of rich assholes everywhere, thinks that he has little power, and is worried about all those uppity non-white people getting a piece of his pie. There was a lot about this book that made me sigh and think how little has changed. The dude with all the physical power, all the money, all the ability to cheat on his wife and beat his mistress and do whatever he wants, he thinks he's powerless. He thinks those damned poor people and those damned immigrants are out to rob him of his rightful...well, whatever his "rightful" is is never defined. But it feels threatened, dammit! And that justifies...well, whatever he wants!

People keep saying that income inequality is approaching or has surpassed the era in which Fitzgerald was writing, and this isn't the main point of his book, but it's a little eerie to see the same kind of denial of privilege coming out of the mouth of the character with the most power.

I know very little about formal criticism of this book, but you hear about it as a critique of the Jazz Age, but what I was struck with this time was how virtually every character we know is actually from the Midwest, transplanted to the outskirts of New York City. Do we see native New Yorkers? Maybe Tom's mistress' sister, and a few people at that party, but they don't make much of an impression.

It's hard to come up with a coherent review of The Great Gatsby. I'm sure a million have been written. But every time I read it, I come up with something different to think about. That right there is the mark of a classic.

Also read as part of the BBC Big Read

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