Great by Sara Benincasa

Stars: 3 out of 5

Spoilers ahead for anyone not familiar with the original story of The Great Gatsby.

Great is my final book for Read Harder 2018! It’s a stand-in for the The Great Gatsby which I totally hated in school for two reasons. First of all, despite that Read Harder made task 24 an assigned book that I hated, I could not bring myself to reread it or Beloved which I also hated. Bear in mind with Beloved that it was triggering for me and incredibly difficult to get through but it had been assigned and I powered through it. Not gonna do that again. Second of all, I strive to all my challenges by female authors and I’ve only ever been assigned Beloved and Jane Austen books that I adored. Okay, I only kinda liked Emma but I think you get the point. So, that brings me back to Great which is a modern retelling of an assigned book that I hated written by a woman. Perfect! 

I think it really helped to know the plot this time but there were a few more things that helped this one along that hurt my impression of the original. I’m one of those people who likes to look on the bright side, tries to take everyone on their word, and absolutely hates dishonesty of any kind. If you’re familiar with The Great Gatsby already, you’ve probably realized why I just hated everything. I felt for the protagonist and for Gatsby but I was just disgusted with everyone else by the end of it, especially Daisy. I had assumed she had more agency than she did because I grew up with women who had a lot more agency. 

In this version, the amount of agency that Delilah (the new Daisy) has is much more obvious to me here. Or maybe I just knew to look for it this time. It’s a little hard to be sure. Still, it’s obvious that Delilah has to listen to her parents and her parents are totally trying to get in bed with her boyfriend’s family and that’s going to be a recipe for both his ability to take advantage of her and to know that he can do whatever the hell he wants. The depth of patriarchy in control during the time of the first book was quite lost on my when I read it and there was no context for it given in the class, so I didn’t gain an appreciation for that until I read Reading Lolita in Tehran last year.

I also didn’t appreciate how unlikeable everyone was supposed to be until another blogger posted that it was one of the reason the book was so genius. In the original, I liked Nick the most but couldn’t get behind why he wouldn’t stand up for his cousin. Of course, patriarchy, but I didn’t think about it like that back then. In this version, our protagonist at least tries. Also, the lesbian twist gives it a bit of uncertainty for a little while. Still, I feel like Naomi never gets to the same place that Nick does. She never gives in to the world without her internal monologue questioning the morality of what’s going on around her and whether or not there’s anything she can do about it. 

There’s this other things about it too that makes this version more bearable to me than the original. When it comes to cheating and people not taking their relationships or each other seriously, I can stomach it better with teenagers than married adults. In the original, Daisy was a mom and we almost never hear about her child. Yes, that may have been a rich girl thing in the 20’s but it really contributed to my dislike of the character and her story. Delilah doesn’t have a child to neglect nor does she have one to look out for when asking for a divorce. A divorce is much harsher even now than a simple high school breakup.

That said, teenage hormones are also much more understandable to be out of control than Daisy just being a sad, controlled, grown woman. Sorry, but zero sympathy. I didn’t really have it in me to have much sympathy for Myrtle either. Also a cheater and wanting someone else’s husband to boot. Misti, on the other hand, isn’t breaking a marriage or parents of an innocent baby. She’s cheating but not on a man who supports her while she totally takes him for granted. In fact, George Wilson was always the guy I had the most sympathy for in the original. In this version, Giovanni is similar but he’s just a high school boyfriend. He’s taken advantage of but it’s not to the same degree. 

This brings us to Gatsby, or Jacinta Trimalchio. I really have to hand it to the author, Trimalchio is a genius last name to give her. I didn’t know it until I was writing this review, but she used a name that was referenced to Gatsby in the original and one of a character that follows the same trajectory in a Roman play. According to Wikipedia on Trimalchio, the character is “an arrogant former slave who has become quite wealthy by tactics that most would find distasteful”. Sound familiar?

For me, despite dishonesty, Trimalchio gets the next biggest bit of sympathy. I get where she’s coming from and it’s all really heartbreaking. I have always felt bad for people who are so ashamed of where they’re coming from and who know they will be judged harshly by the people around them if those people knew what they had been through in life. She hides behind a stage name until she can’t anymore. She tells as much of the truth as she can handle at a time. It’s all still very dishonest, but she’s trying to work toward honesty and get and keep the person she values most in the world. It’s also disturbingly stalkerish.

In the end, what’s always made me feel the most sympathy for both Jacinto and Gatsby is the faith in who they believe Delilah and Daisy to be. Worse than any lies or deceit is finding out that the person you love the most in the world is so willing to abandon you like that.  In this version, I did feel a little like Jacinta knew a little better than Gatsby had and it was not quite as sad. She had hoped but in the end, she also realized that she had erred. It’s still sad, but not quite as much. Or maybe I’m just weird. 

Anyway, much as I hated the original story of The Great Gatsby, I would recommend this one to other readers. That Benincasa uses high school students instead of married adults makes the story not as horrifying. It makes the fear of the climax more understandable because kids have their lives to look forward to and parents to listen to and parents to be afraid of on top of the authorities and it’s easier to think of Delilah being swept up in the chaos of what everyone else believes than Daisy making the conscience choice to stay with that prick because she’s ultimately as selfish and awful a person but I didn’t see it until then. Add it on Goodreads and let me know what you think if you pick up later! 

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