For anyone living under a rock or perhaps not having grown up in the US where most of us encounter it in high school, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby tells the story of the handsome young millionaire Jay Gatsby and his attempts to recapture the lost love of Daisy Buchanan. We’re guided on this journey by Nick Carraway, a recent arrival to Long Island in the early 1920s who is both Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s distant cousin. What we encounter when reading Gatsby is one of the most famous tragic stories in American literature.
My book club decided to revisit this novel this month to coincide with the release of Baz Lurhman’s movie a few weeks ago. The last time I read this I was 17, so I’ve decided it still counts for the Cannonball Read (though I’m fairly certain there wasn’t really any danger in it not counting… I’m pretty sure there aren’t CBR police or anything. Are there?). I came to this really excited; my memory of Gatsby was that it was one of my most-beloved required-reading books. Rereading it 17 years later didn’t change my opinion on it at all, I’m glad to say.
I think many folks resist Fitzgerald’s most famous work; I can totally understand why they would – it’s one of the most popular American novels of all time and most of us are forced to read it at least once in our school career. However, I have always enjoyed melancholy, and The Great Gatsby is certainly rife with it. Some of Fitzgerald’s language is incredibly vivid and beautiful. Even if there weren’t more than a handful of film versions of this I’d have no trouble at all picturing the settings Nick describes. I was using my marked-up and highlighted version from high school so I struggled to ignore all the underlined references to color and all the overt symbolism since I can just read for pleasure now.
One thing that continues to amaze me, having just finished this book for the second time, is that Fitzgerald can make such reprehensible characters so engaging. We aren’t really left with much sympathy for any of them; I suppose Gatsby’s lifelong quest to earn riches enough to impress the woman he loves only to discover she’s not really worth it at all is heart wrenching. In real life I do have more sympathy for peoples’ poor life choices. For some reason, in literature I hold them to higher standards and find it difficult to feel bad for a man who blindly followed the ideal of a girl he knew before, without accepting that people can change and grow. Of course a young immature girl would change in the five years since her one-time beau departed; it’s unreasonable to expect her to sit around waiting forever. Gatsby throws party after party, purchases cars and houses and shirts, all for the love of a woman he hasn’t set eyes on in half a decade. That’s stupid. Romantic maybe, but stupid.
Perhaps if the object of Gatsby’s desire were anything but the flighty, selfish and thoughtless young woman that Daisy Buchanan has become I’d have more sympathy for him. She’s actually perfectly matched to her husband Tom; they both deserve each other, in my opinion. Jordan, the couples’ friend and erstwhile love interest for Nick, is slightly better, as is Nick himself. Again, despite ALL of this, I still love this book. Normally reading about assholes elicits a less positive response; go figure!
What else is there to say? This novel is a classic; you’ll either read it because of that or you won’t because of that. Most of us have read it at some point in our lives but if you haven’t try not to resist it just because it was on so many high school reading lists. It’s on them for a reason. And hey, it’s not even 200 pages long so really what have you got to lose?