[Book Review] Jillian Cantor’s Beautiful Little Fools
That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world…a beautiful little fool…
There are few things more dangerous to be in this world than a woman. There are few things more powerful to be than a straight white man. Unfortunately, these statements have only gotten truer as the years pass; the only category to expand being the former. Even the most cursory of glances at media over the years could provide any number of examples to support it. Literature in particular was perhaps the original lens into societal structure and patterns, allowing for both a probing into the depths of how they function and, sometimes, an exploration of the fantasy of justice otherwise unattainable in the real world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women were by and large the originators of the novel as an art form. They both created and consumed more than their male counterparts, and as a result (also unsurprisingly) it was for a time thought to be a lesser form of art much the same way we use terms like “chick lit” and “beach reads” with a derogatory note today. To this day many of literature’s foundational works and authors have been forgotten in favor of praising male authors who took inspiration. And so, it’s always nice when an immensely popular book about women written by men gets reinvented in the hands of a woman.
I should perhaps preface this review with the fact that Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels ever written, so much so that at least three algorithms across various platforms immediately informed me when it entered public domain and, consequently, of novels that explored the characters in new situations (most notably Michael Farris Smith’s Nick, which explores Nick Carraway’s time in the military and after, leading up to his introduction to Jay Gatsby, brought to my email nigh on 24 hours after Gatsby went public domain). As with most novels that were required reading in middle and high school, Gatsby has a somewhat fraught relationship with relatively modern audiences. You can hate anything if people force you to read it, after all. I can’t even nail down exactly what it is about it that I love so much. I was always a voracious reader growing up and never truly hated much of anything until much later in life, and every time I return to Gatsby, I find something in it I didn’t see as a child.
Most notably, in high school I had at best an inkling that two of the novel’s central characters are queer to some degree; as I got older and more comfortable with my own identity I can no longer be convinced otherwise. Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway’s orientations can even be supported by the novel itself! Perhaps my greatest disappointment with Nick was that it shied away from giving Nick a queer relationship prior to his first seeing Jay Gatsby. And then, to my delight, along comes Jillian Cantor with the entrancing Beautiful Little Fools.
Told from the alternating perspectives of three of the novel’s women — Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, and Catherine Wilson (sister to Tom’s lover) — and the detective investigating Jay Gatsby’s death, Beautiful Little Fools digs deep into the social politics of the time and how being a woman with ambitions beyond marrying wealthy — or marrying at all — is a radical, virtually unconsidered act. To be a single woman in ’20s society is to be poor. To be a queer woman in ’20s society (as Jordan Baker is finally allowed to be on a textual level) is to be shamed out of a career you love. The novel never shames either woman for the choices they make, only puts on stark display the challenges that come along with them. Daisy wishes to survive and prosper, so she marries wealthy. Catherine wishes to remain independent, so she is depicted as a protestor for women’s rights who has lovers but remains largely unattached. Jordan wishes to remain true to herself, so she is queer, gains a lover, and loses the career she loves while struggling to articulate her truth to the people that matter most to her. Never before have these women been given such voices or strong stances.
Cantor’s love for the source text is evident in both the weaving of character and story into a spellbinding new fashion and the new light she shines on characters we thought we knew. Yes, this is but one interpretation, but it melts so well together with Fitzgerald’s text (and subtext) I cannot imagine a better unfolding. The men in particular are fleshed out in a way that adds an especially menacing air to an already fraught premise. Jay Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy is elevated beyond tragic-love-story status straight into the danger zone. Wilson the mechanic’s meek exterior from Gatsby is ripped asunder to reveal an abusive controller. Nick is…no less disillusioned with the entirety of humanity. Tom Buchanan’s womanizing exploits are revealed to have quite the history. Every person in Beautiful Little Fools has more than enough motive to have put that fatal bullet in Jay Gatsby, making the novel’s reveal of the culprit something of a genuine surprise.
Beautiful Little Fools is a nuanced, powerful addition to the Gatsby story. It does what adaptations within and without public domain material should strive to: both has fun with and enriches its source material in a way that makes returning to it an all the more robust experience. If Great Gatsby has cast its spell of disillusionment on you or you’ve ever hungered for more than just Nick Carraway’s interpretations of the people around him, Jillian Cantor’s novel is a necessity.
Beautiful Little Fools will release on February 1, 2022. I would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for an opportunity to read an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.