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9th September
2010
written by Steph

I think 2010 may be the year of eating my words. If you’ll recall, this is the year where I finally conquered Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and rather than despising it like I had in the past, I really got into the story and enjoyed it an awful lot this time round. Enter The Great Gatsby, a book most people read while in their teens, but not I! Despite it often being touted as the quintessential American novel, I’d never been able to get into it (and never been forced to while in highschool). Even with its slim size, I’d only made it about 40 pages in or so before giving up in exasperation. The last time I tried it, I put it down saying that either it was the wrong time for me to be reading it, or Fitzgerald just wasn’t the author for me (I found him too “adverby”, that is, I was disconcerted by his liberal use of adverbs). Well, I think we can now chalk this one up to timing, because this time when I picked up The Great Gatsby, I was mesmerized. And not at all bothered by the writing! Quite the opposite, in fact! In vain I searched for instances of overuse of adverbs or other modifiers, bogging down the prose like the heavy fringe on a flapper’s dress. Despite my anticipation of overly fussy writing, this time, no excess weight was in sight. It honestly felt like I was reading a completely different, totally enchanting novel. Except for the commas! Oh, the commas! Clearly Fitzgerald and I have somewhat incompatible views on how these little freckles of punctuation should be used, which sometimes meant I had to re-read certain sentences several times over and had to have my thinking cap on at all times, but who am I to argue with Fitzgerald’s stylistic proclivities? I’ve probably been using commas wrong all this time. In a word, I found this book completely heartbreaking. Maybe I was in the mood for something sentimental, but at its core, I view The Great Gatsby as a love story. Tony says he doesn’t think that’s the story Fitzgerald was trying to tell, but (surprise, surprise!) I disagree. Vehemently, evenly. I agree that this is a novel about class warfare and the struggle for the common man to break into the glitzy, glamorous upper echelon of society, where one’s acceptance is contingent on something far more nebulous than money (gotta hate the nouveau riche). But ultimately, wasn’t Gatsby’s true motivation Daisy? Everything he worked for was worthless without her by his side, and Fitzgerald shows that without genuine human connections, and yes, love, all the wealth and trimmings in the world mean nothing. One is but a hollow shell of a human, haunting a home that feels all the larger for its lack of that one person who makes the stars burn brighter. I mean, honestly, how can one doubt this is a love story when it has passages like this in it:
“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
Surely I am not alone in swooning at those lines, am I? Talk about prose to make your pulse flutter! But really, what is a love story without characters? Not a very good love story, I reckon, so of course this is a novel brimming with wonderful characters. By which I do not mean these are wonderful people, for certainly none of them are without their flaws, but all of them are interesting and most importantly, identifiably human. I often felt great ambivalence while reading about Daisy and Gatsby and Tom; I would recoil when their actions were truly barbaric, only to be drawn in again like a moth to a flame. They were so damaged and not entirely sympathetic, and I knew the book would end tragically (and had a very good idea of what form that tragedy would take), and I yet I hoped they would prevail. That there would be a change of heart, a switching of the tracks, that things would turn out ok and the characters would deserve a happy ending. But things end very very sadly, and if any of the characters earn happy endings, that’s a bill that’s never made good on. What makes the book so interesting and perhaps so indelible is that I know that when I read it again, even knowing unequivocally how things will turn out, I will still hope otherwise. A book that can make you feel that is certainly one worth reading more than once. I’m just so happy I finally found the time to give myself over to it. So yes, you can read this as a cautionary tale about the futility of the American dream and how it can so easily crumble, but what are dreams without people, and what are people without love? Isn’t that what Fitzgerald really teaches us in the end? Rating: 5 out of 5 [P.S. I know that the cover of the American edition is supposed to be some venerable classic work of art (it gets its own section in the wikipedia entry on the book, for goodness' sakes!), but it is SO ugly. I have always hated it, and so instead I have put up a cover for one of the U.K. editions of the novel. Vastly superior and far more fitting! I read an e-book version of the novel, but I intend to purchase a physical copy to display on our shelves… I shall certainly be ordering from The Book Depository to do so!]

31 Comments

  1. 09/09/2010

    Glad you enjoyed this one. It’s one of my favorites. I don’t recall the commas, so perhaps I need to refresh my memory with a third reading.

  2. 09/09/2010

    Somehow I missed out on this in school as well, but I’ve never gotten around to it either. It’s great encouragement to hear how much you’ve enjoyed it, having finally found the right reading time for it.

  3. Congratulations on conquering another failed book! I haven’t read this one either, but you make it sound wonderful.

  4. 09/09/2010

    Oh! This gives me so much hope! I tried to read Gatsby for the first time this summer and only made it 40 or so pages in.

  5. Kathleen
    09/09/2010

    I’m so glad you were able to enjoy it when you tried it again. It has always been one of my favorites and I swear that every time I read it, I discover something new about it that I hadn’t noticed before. And I have to agree with you about the love story part too!

  6. Meg
    09/09/2010

    This is one of those books heralded as “classics” that I actually loved as both a teen and an adult! I’ve read it three times, the only book to have that honor in my life: once in 11th grade; once as a sophomore in college; and once for pleasure reading a few years ago. Fitzgerald’s language is captivating!

  7. 09/09/2010

    This is one of my favorite books I love it.

    Cant say the same for cloud atlas though 😉

  8. 09/09/2010

    I read it only once, many years ago and it left me with this feeling of symbol & motif over-usage. It might be as you say, a matter of being the right book at the wrong time. I’m actually waiting until I’m 40 to make a few re-reads.

    A.
    PS: That was indeed a lovely quote *sigh*

  9. 09/10/2010

    This was assigned reading for me in when I was in high school, and it was by far my favorite of all the things I had to read. I remember I had to write a paper on the color symbolism in the story, and I still have all my notes and flashcards in a box full of school stuff. It is an incredible book, and I can still call up scenes from it after all these years. I am so glad that you loved it this second time around. I have a copy in my shelf that I can see as I am typing this, and I think this is another book that needs a reread after all these years!

  10. 09/10/2010

    You keep giving me hope that maybe I can go back and pick up some books that I couldn’t get into and give them another try. I loved The Great Gatsby but it has been a few years since I read it.

  11. 09/10/2010

    @ charley: Another author whose punctuation drives me mad is Henry James… It seems like Fitzgerald was just putting them in the middle of sentences in a way that interrupted the flow of ideas which made for a lot of backtracking on my part, but maybe it just goes to show that he’s an author who requires slow, methodical reading rather than a quick speed through.
     
    @ Buried in Print: In a way, I’m glad that I didn’t read this in highschool because I think I came to it later in life but at the right time. I worry that if I had read it any sooner than I ultimately did, I might not have liked it at all!
     
    @ Jackie: It was unexpectedly wonderful! I’d love for you to read it, because I think you’d have a lot of great insights about it.
     
    @ Amanda: Tell me about it! For a while I was certain this was a book I was simply destined to never read and that made me sad. I’m glad I kept trying and finally found a time when it clicked. I think you’ll find that moment, too some day! Just don’t force it!
     
    @ Kathleen: I can definitely see how this is one of those books that you pick up something different each time you read it. Next time I think I’ll read it much more slowly so I can really savor the language and the details as I now have a grasp of the basic plot.
     

  12. 09/10/2010

    @ Meg: It’s so nice that you’ve had the opportunity to revisit this book so many times! The only book I’ve had to read multiple times for school was The Hobbit which was fine, but I never loved it as much as so many others do!
     
    @ Jessica: Yeah, Cloud Atlas was another book I just thought wasn’t for me until this year… so maybe like tastebuds reading tastes change every 7 years?
     
    @ Alex: I actually didn’t feel there were too many overt symbols when I read through, but I think I was in an odd language-induced trance so I’m sure they’re there and I just missed them. I do plan to re-read this, so maybe when I do I’ll feel more similar to you!
     
    @ zibilee: How fascinating re: color symbolism. I certainly didn’t pick up on any of that as I read… when I do re-read, I’m going to be thinking about what any color references mean, that’s for sure! 😀
     
    @ Stephanie: These various experiences make me wonder what other books I’ve cast aside might suddenly appeal… Do you think this means I may one day read an love Great Expectations? 😉

  13. 09/10/2010

    I’m delighted that you loved the book this time. As you say, sometimes the time is just not right. I often wonder if Daisy was based on Zelda. I like to think I’m very familiar with all of Fitzgerald’s work, but a few years ago I read a compilation of stories by Scott and Zelda and (blush) I couldn’t tell which one wrote which story! Tender is the Night is a beautiful novel, too.

  14. i love this one and read it with my juniors. it’s part history lesson and part life lesson with symbols, imagery, and literary elements galore. but beneath all that is a story that i love to read each year. 🙂

  15. 09/10/2010

    I’m glad the book finally worked for you. It’s interesting that it felt like an entirely different novel this time around. That makes me want to retry some of the books I’ve disliked, just to see if they are entirely different for me.

  16. 09/11/2010

    Whatever “Great American Novel” feel there was to this novel, the reputation/stigma was purely secondhand. And it was never assigned reading, so it didn’t feel like homework at all when I read it a few months ago (for an online reading club, w/c made the difference in reactions more obvious). Loved this book, loved Gatsby, I wanted to hit Daisy over the head, haha. And the language was beautiful.

    PS – Like you, I hated that “symbolic” cover. I don’t care about history this time around, it just didn’t work for me. Unfortunately, that was the cover of the book I got at the secondhand store. But I’m planning to update the look — at the same time get more Fitzy in my shelves.

  17. 09/11/2010

    Glad you got into The Great Gatsby after all, it’s such a wonderful book! Though I think I need to reread it soon and watch out for the commas 😀

    Time can really change how you relate to books, maybe I’ll even come to enjoy Hemningway at some point!

  18. 09/11/2010

    So glad you got over your Gatsby block – it really is one of the great American novels, (I also adore, even prefer, Tender is the Night). Love the swoony quote.

  19. 09/11/2010

    Ohh I didn’t realize you also hadn’t read it earlier. Another one we both gushed over! 😀

    I also think that historic cover so very ugly, lol. My first copy was this: http://kissacloud.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/the-great-gatsby-by-f-scott-fitzgerald/

    And then loved it so much also purchased that one you posted above. To match my Tender is the Night: http://www.bookdepository.com/book/9780141183596/Tender-is-the-Night

    But also lusting after the editions Frances posted about: http://nonsuchbook.typepad.com/nonsuch_book/2010/08/book-lust-coralie-bickfordsmith-does-fitzgerald.html

  20. 09/11/2010

    @ Nicola: I’ve heard good things about Tender is the Night as well, so now that I’ve finally got over my Fitzgerald fear, I’m definitely going to give it a try next!
     
    @ nat: I don’t really feel bad that I didn’t read this in high school, but I’d be really interested to hear deeper discussion on the various symbols and ideas in the book itself. I feel there’s only so much I can figure out on my own… You must be a real expert when it comes to this book now!
     
    @ Dorothy: It was so weird that it really did seem like a completely different book this time round! I have no idea why it suddenly clicked, but I’m glad that it did!
     
    @ Sasha: I definitely need to read some more “Fitzy” as well… but I refuse to pick up anything with such an ugly cover! Who cares if it in itself is symbolic?!? It ruins the book!
     
    @ Bina: Hemmingway is another author that I need to try again. I’ve only read one book by him but that was ages ago and I really don’t remember much about that experience… I think I’m going to try The Sun Also Rises and we’ll see how that goes…
     
    @ Annabel: I really didn’t expect to find a swoony quote in this novel, so I’m really glad I was proven wrong! And I definitely want to try Tender is the Night now!
     
    @ claire: I remember you loving this one when you read it (last year?), and I felt bad when I tried it and couldn’t get into it. Glad I gave it another shot!
    And I’m glad you’re with me on the ugly cover front (I knew you would be, of course)! I must have missed Frances’s post on those covers because now I’m totally drooling over them and adding them to my “want!” pile!

  21. mee
    09/12/2010

    Unfortunately I’m one of those people were forced to read it in high school! And yes I don’t remember liking it much. I may read it again someday but I’m not rushing. Perhaps in 10-20 years from now? 🙂

  22. 09/13/2010

    @ mee: It’s really such a shame that some books are ruined for us by enforced reading. One of my favourite parts of highschool English classes was when we got to do independent studies and read whatever we liked!
     
    @ kay: Do you think you’ll read it English when you reread, or do you think you’ll try it in French again?
     
    @ Eva: I wish you would! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

  23. kay
    09/12/2010

    I read this one in high school (though in French) and loved it, but sadly my memory of it has dramatically faded. I need to re-read it a.s.a.p.!

  24. Eva
    09/13/2010

    I totally want to reread this now! lol

  25. 09/15/2010

    I had the same experience as you with this one. When I first read it in the 10th grade, I just tossed it aside and said “bleh.” Then when I read it a year or two later for class, where we actually discussed and analyzed it, I fell in love. To me it’s one of those books that needs a closer look, needs to be explored in depth. That wasn’t really my style in early high school when I took books for nothing more than their surface and sped through one after another.

    I can’t remember the last time I read this. May have to pull it out again soon.

  26. 09/16/2010

    Isn’t it simply amazing when the right book hits us at the right time? I tried and gave up on this book quite a few times. It wasn’t only until 4 years ago that I was able to both complete and enjoy the story.

    I think sometimes, we can be too young to enjoy some of the more complex emotions in these books.

  27. 09/16/2010

    @ Kari: I agree that this book definitely needs to be parsed and looked at closely, which is why I’m a bit sad that although I waited to come to it at the right time, I don’t really have anyone else to walk me through ideas and themes. Well, I suppose that’s why book bloggers are around! 😉
     
    @ Nishita: I agree that many highschool kids would be far too young to fully appreciate this novel, which is why I’m surprised so many schools make it required reading. Far better to wait until even college, I think!

  28. 09/17/2010

    The Great Gatsby is a rarity among books populated by unsympathetic characters that I re-read. When I first read it in high school, my lack of experience in life (and in love) didn’t prepare me to fully appreciate the depth of the book. The writing is no doubt beautiful. The love triangle, got the upper hand by struggle with money and power, is beyond the understanding of a teenager. I have managed to re-read this book every year—both for the poignancy of the story and the elegance of the writing.

  29. 09/19/2010

    @ Matt: I don’t really mind unsympathetic characters in books, but I think this book has some of the best examples of that kind. Even though the characters all have huge flaws, you still get so wrapped up in their stories and I really hoped for a happy ending even though I knew it wasn’t coming. I can definitely see why you re-read it so frequently!

  30. 09/21/2010

    I remember really enjoying this in high school. And then we spent a month writing papers about it. Definitely time for a reread! Thanks for the reminder of how beautiful it is.

  31. 09/21/2010

    @ Rebecca: Yes, I’m sure it will be fun to re-read this one without the burden of paper writing in the back of your mind! I hope you do re-read it soon; I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

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