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Review: Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor

Beautiful Little Fools
Jillian Cantor
Simon & Schuster AUS
2022, 344p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: On a sultry August day in 1922, Jay Gatsby is shot dead in his West Egg swimming pool. To the police, it appears to be an open-and-shut case of murder/suicide when the body of George Wilson, a local mechanic, is found in the woods nearby.

Then a diamond hairpin is discovered in the bushes by the pool, and three women fall under suspicion. Each holds a key that can unlock the truth to the mysterious life and death of this enigmatic millionaire. 

Daisy Buchanan once thought she might marry Gatsby—before her family was torn apart by an unspeakable tragedy that sent her into the arms of the philandering Tom Buchanan.

Jordan Baker, Daisy’s best friend, guards a secret that derailed her promising golf career and threatens to ruin her friendship with Daisy as well.

Catherine McCoy, a suffragette, fights for women’s freedom and independence, and especially for her sister, Myrtle Wilson, who’s trapped in a terrible marriage.

Their stories unfold in the years leading up to that fateful summer of 1922, when all three of their lives are on the brink of unraveling. Each woman is pulled deeper into Jay Gatsby’s romantic obsession, with devastating consequences for all of them.

Jillian Cantor revisits the glittering Jazz Age world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, retelling this timeless American classic from the women’s perspective. Beautiful Little Fools is a quintessential tale of money and power, marriage and friendship, love and desire, and ultimately the murder of a man tormented by the past and driven by a destructive longing that can never be fulfilled.

I really enjoyed this. And honestly, I’m quite ambivalent about The Great Gatsby. However, I have only read it once and books like that I think that probably, you benefit from reading them multiple times. There’s always a lot that you don’t pick up on in the first reading or character motivations and actions that become clearer later or after having read other literature on it etc. I’ve never felt compelled to pick it up again…until reading this.

This is a retelling that focuses on the women – Daisy Fay (later Daisy Buchanan), her best friend Jordan Baker and Catherine McCoy (sister of Myrtle Wilson). The women are all very different but will eventually be standing together, deciding to keep a secret before going their separate ways. One detective, Frank Charles, doesn’t really believe that the murder of Gatsby is as open and shut as it looked and armed with the motivation of a healthy reward, interviews all three women in order to clear up “loose ends” and see if he can really know what happened.

Daisy was raised in relative wealth and privilege (so too, was Jordan, whose father was a Judge) with a businessman father and a lovely house. She meets Jay Gatsby, then a poor soldier and the two fall in love with Gatsby begging Daisy to wait for him. When Daisy and her mother are left with virtually nothing after the death of her father, Daisy makes a choice – she will get Tom Buchanan, wealthy beyond reason to marry her, thereby securing her mother and herself a life of comfort. For Daisy, life is a dream – until the gloss starts to wear off after the honey moon and they bounce from one city to another, moving on due to Tom’s “indiscretions”. For what it’s worth, Daisy is aware every step of the way that the choice she has made has created this life – when her child is born, Daisy hopes it’s a boy so that he may be born with more choices than she ever had. When the baby is a girl, Daisy says that she hopes she’ll be a fool and that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a “beautiful little fool”. Daisy is young when she makes these decisions, too young in many ways, to be so jaded. She knows she’s the “pretty one” and that it’s up to her to change things and the only way she can do that, is to use her looks. To become the woman the wealthiest man wants as his wife. A status symbol, an ornament.

Jordan and Catherine are in their own ways, trying to change things. Jordan is a gifted golfer, joining the first Ladies tour and Catherine is a suffragette, fighting for women’s rights. She lives in relative poverty and doesn’t want or need a man, much to her sister Myrtle’s dismay and confusion. Jordan doesn’t want a man either, but for different reasons to Catherine. Over the course of the book, Jordan and Catherine (and Myrtle) all fall pretty to Jay Gatsby’s manipulations, pawns in his determined game to win back Daisy and her love. Gatsby takes obsession to new levels the deeper into the story we go, increasingly desperate to convince Daisy that he can take care of her now. In Gatsby’s mind, the problem was that he had no money and someone of Daisy’s beauty and status was always going to marry into money. Now he has money, it doesn’t matter that Daisy is already married. It doesn’t even seem to matter to him what Daisy wants. Gatsby has obsessed over their being together again for years and I don’t think it occurs to him that this might not have been the case for Daisy.

I’m sure that people who really love and intimately know the original story will see this quite differently than I did but it definitely works as a story for those who are only passingly familiar with Fitzgerald’s book or to be honest, who have never read it at all. It’s made me want to take another look at it again, to see what parts of the novel were used to construct and flesh out female characters, to see what their actions looked like through different eyes and see the differences that Cantor worked into her story. Going to have to dig out the copy we have somewhere.

Really liked this. 2/2 for me now on Jillian Cantor’s novels.

8/10

Book #10 of 2022

This is the first book completed for my 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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Review: Half Life by Jillian Cantor

Half Life
Jillian Cantor
Simon & Schuster AUS
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: In Poland in 1891, Marie Curie (then Marya Sklodowska) was engaged to a budding mathematician, Kazimierz Zorawski. But when his mother insisted she was too poor and not good enough, he broke off the engagement. A heartbroken Marya left Poland for Paris, where she would attend the Sorbonne to study chemistry and physics. Eventually Marie Curie would go on to change the course of science forever and be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

But what if she had made a different choice?

What if she had stayed in Poland, married Kazimierz at the age of twenty-four, and never attended the Sorbonne or discovered radium? What if she had chosen a life of domesticity with a constant hunger for knowledge in Russian Poland where education for women was restricted, instead of studying science in Paris and meeting Pierre Curie?

Entwining Marie Curie’s real story with Marya Zorawska’s fictional one, Half Life explores loves lost and destinies unfulfilled—and probes issues of loyalty and identity, gender and class, motherhood and sisterhood, fame and anonymity, scholarship and knowledge. Through parallel contrasting versions of Marya’s life, Jillian Cantor’s unique historical novel asks what would have happened if a great scientific mind was denied opportunity and access to education. It examines how the lives of one remarkable woman and the people she loved – as well as the world at large and course of science and history—might have been irrevocably changed in ways both great and small. 

I thought this was fascinating.

Everyone knows who Marie Curie is, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (shared with her husband), she also won a second Nobel Prize for a different science after his death, on her own. She discovered polonium and radium and developed mobile X-ray technology to bring the machines to injured soldiers in the fields so that they might be diagnosed and helped much sooner. This book is a Sliding Doors type of story, which splits the narrative into alternating chapters – one set where Marya doesn’t get on the train to go to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and instead marries her Polish boyfriend, when he decides she means more to him than his wealthy family. In the other, she does get on that train and her life plays out mostly as Curie’s does in reality.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this was that the same people populated both narratives. For example, obviously Marie (known as Marya in the chapters where she stays in Poland to marry) doesn’t marry Pierre Curie in one half of the story, but she still meets him. Her life still becomes entwined with his albeit in a very different manner. Without Marie as his wife, Pierre doesn’t win a Nobel Prize in this section of the story and his life is also very different than the life they build in the chapters where Marie chooses Paris, the Sorbonne and furthering her education.

I knew the bare basics about Marie Curie before this and have actually read books where characters come across her – not long ago I read one set in WWI where the main character meets Marie Curie as she’s driving around her mobile X-ray machine and Curie organises for that character to receive one to use. But this gave me so much more about this absolutely remarkable family. Marie -then Marya- was born in a part of Poland under Russian rule and at her time of young adulthood, it wasn’t permitted for women to enrol in further study, hence why her father was saving to send Marya to Paris, to live with one of her sisters, who had already completed her studies there. Marya’s father was a man who seemed determined to give his daughters every opportunity, even though he had experienced situations that meant he was now of reduced means. He believed in their abilities and that they could do anything they wanted to – medicine, science, etc. This meant they had to leave to complete their studies and Paris was a very different place to Russian Poland, although Marie (as she was known in France) was often still the only female in her science classes. Her mind was so brilliant I can barely understand it – I’m not scientifically or mathematically minded so no matter which “version” of her life I was in (in the life she chooses to stay in Poland, the man she marries is a mathematician, quite brilliant in his own right but probably not as much as his wife, who cannot study officially in that life for many years) there were large parts of what people were studying that I didn’t particularly understand! I loved the symmetry of the two timelines – when Marya stays in Poland, she obviously doesn’t win the Nobel Prize, like Pierre doesn’t…but who does keeps things consistent, continues to be a reflection of the story that is grounded in her real life choices and experiences. This is repeated throughout the two portions of the book as the same characters continue to show up in different roles, shaping Marie or Marya’s life in different ways.

I thought this was a really unique idea and a wonderful way to tell a story. I love a ‘what if’? type of story and imagine if the world didn’t get Marie Curie and her husband making the discoveries that they did. Makes you think about the decisions you make in a split second (such as Marya choosing whether or not to get on the train to Paris or whether to choose love as she knew it then) and how they impact on the rest of your life. I appreciated all the little details here, especially at the end. I thought that was really well done.

8/10

Book #67 of 2021

Half Life definitely counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s the 14th book completed so far.

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