Up until last week, I was under the impression that I had read it The Great Gatsby one summer when I was in college. I knew I didn’t remember much about it, but after listening to the first disc of the audiobook, I now believe that I never read it all. If I did, it certainly made no impression whatsoever.
For the two or three people who don’t know, The Great Gatsby is set in 1920s New York and is populated primarily with wealthy young people who go from party to party without any real purpose. The fairly simple plot centers on Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, former lovers who are reunited through Gatsby’s machinations. Daisy is now married to the unfaithful Tom Buchanan. The multiple affairs eventually, and inevitably, lead to disaster.
I can’t quite decide what I think about this book. I certainly didn’t like any of the characters. They seem rich and spoiled and purposeless. But I did feel for them at times. Like anyone else, I know what it is to feel a nostalgic longing for lost relationships, even as I know (as Gatsby did not) that you can never really relive the past. So, yeah, I understood Gatsby and Daisy’s desire to get back what they had lost, but Gatsby’s deliberate attempts to draw Daisy back to him feel too calculated, as if Daisy is a possession he has a right to reclaim.
Daisy herself is a fairly insubstantial character. It’s never clear what she thinks or how she really feels about the men in her life. She’s treated like an object, so she acts like one a lot of the time. Based on her behavior before her wedding, we know she was thinking of Gatsby and wasn’t sure she should marry Buchanan. But how does she feel about seeing the “new and improved” Gatsby? How does she feel about Tom now? Is her affair with Gatsby an attempt to recapture lost love or to get revenge on her husband?
In the letters on the final disc of the audiobook, Fitzgerald himself complains that his characterization of Daisy is incomplete, and he’s shocked that no one has noticed! I did notice, but I didn’t see it as a weakness, really, but rather a picture of what happens to women who are objectified. Might they become what they’re expected to be?
The audio version was narrated by Tim Robbins, an actor whom I generally admire. I wasn’t impressed by his reading here, though. The women’s voices are depicted in an exaggerated, hammy style, and Gatsby always sounds sleepy. Was this Robbins attempting a wistful air?
I may have mixed feelings about Gatsby, but the letters read by Robert Sean Leonard are a delight. I loved getting the inside scoop on how the book was developed, how Fitzgerald felt about it, and how contemporary readers reacted. There’s a particularly wonderful letter to Willa Cather in which Fitzgerald assures her that he was not attempting to copy a passage from her recently published A Great Lady; he even encloses his notes from when he was working on a passage in Gatsby to show that he was developing his idea before her work was published.