Great by Sara Benincasa ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: April 8, 2014
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: classic retelling, Hamptons, high society, being the outsider, friendship
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss. (Thanks!)
Summary: Naomi is off to spend the summer with her mother in the Hamptons. As always, she’s completely dreading it because she just doesn’t fit in there. Not with her mom’s rich “friends” or any of the other kids who hang out there. But this summer feels different because of her next door neighbor, Jacinta. She’s throwing elaborate parties, befriending Naomi (to get close to Delilah but still), and suddenly, Naomi is feeling like she is a part of things. But what is real and what is not?
There’s nothing like clicking with a narrator like I did with Naomi.
Her voice was so vividly judgy — I was immediately wrapped up in her story and the indignation she felt about her annual summer plans: the Hamptons to visit her mom where quality time meant hearing her mom complain about her clothes and push her to socialize with the well-connected kids her age. (Delilah and Teddy tolerate her, mostly. But she does not fit into their posh lifestyle at all.) It’s no shock that all Naomi wants to do is study and survive until she can get back to her best friend and dad in Chicago.
So it’s as much of a surprise to her, when Naomi is suddenly giving her mother a little bit of what she wants — getting invited to parties, wearing expensive dresses, going on dates with Jeff (whose dad owns a record label), and girlishly texting with Delilah. This switch in behavior is all thanks to Jacinta, the girl next door who has the means to throw the most excessive parties and maintains a highly-visited fashion blog that everyone wants to get featured on. Naomi is curious about her at first, but almost immediately takes a liking to her — even introducing her to Delilah (Jacinta’s #1 goal for the summer).
This is where things start to intensify because Jacinta and Delilah’s bond is — BOOM — super close, super quick and they are totally inseparable. Delilah is hardly seeing Teddy, Jacinta and Delilah aren’t including Naomi, and when Naomi does manage to see Jacinta, her every thought is wrapped up in Delilah.
Their behavior is bordering on obsessive, and it’s changing the dynamics of the group in a huge, dramatic way.
Most of all, it’s baffling what so many people in this story are willing to sacrifice because they don’t think the rules (of the world!) apply to them. It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating, and it’s tremendously effed up. Naomi is caught in the storm of all of this, and as she skirts the line between these “two” realities, her character is forced to make super tough decisions. Great is so well-paced, the tension is built so tightly, I literally could not put the book down — debating right and wrong, and who the true villain of this story was.
I definitely empathized with Jacinta and rooted for her in a way that I don’t remember doing with Gatsby. It’s tremendous how far she is willing to go for acceptance and for love. I didn’t blame Naomi for being so torn over her friendship with her and I loved the author’s choice of creating an internet maven out of Jacinta — oh, the great dangers and advantages of the world wide web. Without it, this story wouldn’t have existed.
Truth be told, it’s been a really long time since I read The Great Gatsby (I haven’t seen the latest Leo movie either) but Benincasa got my memory rolling and I was so excited (this is geeky) to pick out the parallels between the classic and Great. (Favorite detail, hands down, was how she named each character by using the first initial of the character’s name from the original.) Best of all, my familiarity with the original text in no way affected how hooked I was to this story.
Committing to a modern Gatsby retelling for young adults couldn’t have been an easy task and with the exception of a few too-modern references that I didn’t think would stand the test of time, I couldn’t have asked for a better crafted book to save me from a reading slump and get me excited about a new author.