I’m steeped in books that are to be considered for the Georgia Peach Award and Great by Sara Benincasa was among them. I must admit that I wasn’t enticed by the book flap, which described, yet another foray into the rich and entitled lives of WASPy teens during a Summer in the Hamptons, but what I found after the first chapter was a LGBTQ retelling of The Great Gatsby. Here is the good, bad and ugly.
The Good: Inventive and juicy, Great follows Naomi, an angsty Chicago-bred girl as she spends another Summer with her super-successful Paula Deen/Racheal Ray-esque mother in the Hamptons. We’re told that she has two lives. One with the down-to-earth folks in the city and her Dad and another with the super-rich with her mother in the Hamptons every Summer. It’s fun to see how the Gatsby character is reimagined in an 18-year-old fashion blogging lesbian, and even though you have an idea of the frame of the story the twists in the road seem fresh.
The Bad: Aren’t we tired of WASPy teen settings among the children of the Senators? In addition, the endless references to the beautiful people as being pale and thin are old and untrue. We’re supposed to feel snarky about it as it comes out of the mouth of our “outsider” main character, but it just reaffirms the stereotype of blonde, tall and thin as the epitome of beauty. I disagree! It would have been interesting to set the scene in Texas old money or the cutthroat world of competitive ice dancing.
The Ugly: Unfortunately you run into problems when you just swap out one character for another in a story. All placements aren’t equal and when an adult male is replaced by a social climbing “outsider” teen lesbian then the story transforms into something other than a commentary on love and money. The tragedy isn’t placed at the feet of the class system but at the character’s sexuality. You could argue that Great is a tragic mulatto story.
The female “tragic octoroon” was a stock character of abolitionist literature: a light-skinned woman raised as if a white woman in her father’s household, until hisbankruptcy or death has her reduced to a menial position and sold. She may even be unaware of her status before being so reduced. This character allowed abolitionists to draw attention to the sexual exploitation in slavery, and unlike the suffering of the field hands, did not allow slaveholders to retort that the sufferings of Northern mill hands were no easier, since the Northern mill owner would not sell his own children into slavery.The “tragic mulatta” figure is a woman of biracial heritage who must endure the hardships of African-Americans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious. As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end.
Our Gatsby, Jacinta, is doomed from the beginning, not because of a strar-crossed love, but because she’s gay, and therefore doomed from the beginning. This is problematic when there are so few love stories between girls in YA. If there were other representations I might throw up my hands and say, eh, it’s just a good story.
Bottom Line: Is it a good story? Definitely. I wouldn’t review it if it weren’t. Is it a good book? Maybe not. I’ll definitely put it in my love story and LGBTQ display, but I probably won’t handsell it too much because of the problematic depiction of the viability of teen homosexual relationships.
I could be totally wrong. Tell me your thoughts. After, all, who am I to speak for the LGBTQ community.
Note to publishers: The appeal in the book is the retelling and the LGBTQ aspect. None of that is mentioned in the flap. Are you being deliberately obscure?