Book Review: “Great” Is Only Okay

hello all,

My number one guilty pleasure is reading “YA” novels, so I’m turning in my literary snob library card at the front desk. That being said, I was left less-than-impressed with Sara Benincasa’s “Great”.

SPOILER ALERT, OBVIOUSLY. (But then again, it’s only a spoiler if you’re not familiar with The Great Gatsby.)

The basic gist of the novel is a retelling of The Great Gatsby. Really, it’s more like The Great Gatsby + Gossip Girl + lesbians. The Gay Gatsby, if you will.

The catch, of course, is the handling of all issues queer and feminist. The writing itself has all of the pitfalls of the genre, but as we’ve already established, I love those pitfalls. Awkwardly “casual” dialogue, unnecessary pop-culture references, predictable plots…fine. It comes with the territory.

The impression I got from the way queer and feminist issues are referenced in the novel is that the author was aware of them, maybe even involved in them personally, but didn’t want the audience to think so. Its more of a mishandling than anything else. Obviously I don’t know the author personally, but this seems to come through in a couple of places. The main character, Naomi, self identifies as a feminist. For example, there’s this exchange, between Naomi and her love interest:

“Let’s go down to the carnival,” I suggested. “I want to check out the food tents.”

“Oh, you just want me to win you a stuffed animal,” Jeff said.

“I’m a feminist, Jeffrey. I will win my own stuffed animal.”

“Do feminists ever ride the Ferris wheel with men they’ve just met?”

“Feminists do whatever they want. That means I’ll see how I feel after I get some grilled lobster in me.”

Reading that, my head is jumbled even as I fall in love with the line “feminists do whatever they want.” It’s a very grrl power brand of feminism….nested within a means of flirting, which leaves me wondering if her feminism is a joke or if the author is trying to make it palatable for the reader. Or what. I’m still at odds, especially when this exchange is accompanied by a pretty consistent stream of body-shaming rhetoric.  For example, in one of Naomi’s first days in her mother’s house, she kicks off her shoes and we get the following gem:

I’m a Chicagoan through and through, which means I instinctively shed clothes (not in a whorish way) every time the temperature passes sixty degrees. So my feet get a little more sun. So what?

What gets me about this line, throwaway as it is, is that it’s completely unnecessary. The girl took her shoes off, but this self identified feminist feels the need to include an “I’m not a whore” remark. (The remark kinda reminds me of guys rushing to declare “no homo”.) The implication being, of course, that there is a whorish way to stay cool in the summer, but that Naomi is not one of Those Girls.

In fact, this whole novel has underpinnings of the virgin/whore dichotomy written all over it. Several times, when a female character is introduced, the size of her breasts are mentioned, along with any known plastic surgeries, and almost every time, the characters with larger breasts or plastic surgeries are portrayed negatively. Naomi passes judgement on girls who get nose-jobs, girls who go skinny dipping, and girls who wear makeup and fashionable clothes. Naomi and Jacinta, for example, are noted as having tiny breasts and are portrayed as more relate-able, while Delilah, originally portrayed as hot AND kind, is later judged as selfish and shallow. (In comparison to The Great Gatsby, Naomi would be Nick Carraway, Delilah would be Daisy Buchanan, and Jacinta would be Jay Gatsby. Check out how their initials match!) Naomi herself name-drops her Doc Martens, just to show that she’s obviously an unfashionable alternative kid (and therefore virtuous). In Naomi’s mind, the trappings of stereotypical femininity seem to mark you as less; when she gets sucked into the drama of the Hamptons, she wears designer clothes, but at the end of the summer she realizes the error of her ways and scurries back into her Doc Martens.

Okay, but enough feminist stuff. I mean, the exact same thing occurs with its handling of queer stuff.

In much the same way that Naomi claims to be a feminist, Naomi claims to be an ally. (Spoiler alert, she’s straight. She likes Jeff. We have no indication in the book that she is at all queer. Carry on.) When asked about her extracurricular activities, Naomi admits that she’s in the LGBT-straight alliance…but goes on to rationalize her membership as because her lesbian BFF made her do it. Towards the end of the book, Naomi hears one of the male characters use the word “dyke” as a slur…and ignores it. The kicker is that she fully acknowledges to herself that she should have said something, because:

As an ally member of our school’s LGBTQ group, I know it’s my job to stand up for gays and lesbians when they aren’t there to stand up for themselves.

On the subject of Naomi’s lesbian BFF, I am completely baffled. Named Skags and described as a “boyish lesbian,” whose identification as “boi” annoys Naomi because of the spelling, her character seems to run along the most stereotypical lines possible, due to her primary characteristic being “sporty.” Her role in the book seems to be to yell at Naomi for not calling her more often and to dispense opinions on Jacinta and Delilah’s relationship. (Skags determines them to be “not real lesbians” due to the fact that they are actually just “mutually obsessed” with each other.) Aside from that, there’s a subplot where Skags is busy woo-ing one of the popular girls at their school, while Naomi repeatedly tells Skags that the popular girl would never like her. Basically, Naomi is a crappy friend and Skags is not a very well developed character.

Really, I consider the primary failing of this novel to be that it tries to be something that its not. It’s fun in all of the predictable ways that YA is fun, but at the end of the day, Naomi fails to live up to her own claims as an ally and a feminist. Had she not made those claims, the novel would still have some of the issues I brought up, but it would at least have consistency.

Gossip Girl Rori

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