Book Review: Great by Sara Benincasa

Some retellings are made for fans, some are best appreciated by those unfamiliar with the original or only marginally interested. Great by Sara Benincasa, a contemporary youngadult retelling of The Great Gatsby, is the latter. Great could have interesting on its own without comparison to Fitzgerald’s novel.

Great by Sara Benincasa
Published: April 8, 2014 by HarperTeen/Harper Collins
ISBN: 9780062222695
Find: Goodreads Amazon | Library
Source: ARC from publisher
Genre: young adult contemporary, retellings

Synopsis: Everyone loves a good scandal.

Naomi Rye usually dreads spending the summer with her socialite mother in East Hampton. This year is no different. She sticks out like a sore thumb among the teenagers who have been summering (a verb only the very rich use) together for years. But Naomi finds herself captivated by her mysterious next-door neighbor, Jacinta. Jacinta has her own reason for drawing close to Naomi-to meet the beautiful and untouchable Delilah Fairweather. But Jacinta’s carefully constructed world is hiding something huge, a secret that could undo everything. And Naomi must decide how far she is willing to be pulled into this web of lies and deception before she is unable to escape.

Based on a beloved classic and steeped in Sara Benincasa’s darkly comic voice, Great has all the drama, glitz, and romance with a terrific modern (and scandalous) twist to enthrall readers.

My thoughts: I really wanted to like this, but it left me feeling underwhelmed. I’m usually all about dark comedy and often enjoy healthy dose of glitz and glam. Yet it just didn’t have that “wow” factor that made it truly memorable.

The characters in this felt really flat. I didn’t have sympathy for any of them or gain insight into their motivations. Had the retelling aspect and Benincasa’s desire to stick so closely to the plot of Gatsby taken a backseat, perhaps there would have been more opportunity to develop and explore the characters on their own. None of the players in the novel ever become more than caricatures or stock characters.

I haven’t read The Great Gatsby since high school (or seen the recent Baz Luhrmann movie) but I do really enjoy some of Fitzgerald’s writing, especially his short stories. His use of language, and turns of phrase can be simple, yet profound.  Benincasa’s prose felt more like Gossip Girl than Gatsby.

I was most interested in the way Benincasa modernized the story by making Jacinta a fashion blogger and how teen internet culture would be represented in the book (I’m reading a handful of recent releases that deal with this in various ways and degrees). But the believability stretched very thin for me on this front, especially when we learn the nature of Jacinta’s story. I didn’t buy that a Vogue editor would recognize her, or that a blog that stole pictures from Facebook could really be such a hit in such a short amount of time.  I mean, have you seen the professionalism on amateur fashion blogs? The caliber of photography? So the part of the book that really made this the most fascinating to me was the least developed.

I was also excited to see how Benincasa portrayed the lesbian relationship between Jacinta and Delilah, as well as Naomi’s best friend from back home, who was also a very out lesbian. I’m always interested in seeing more young adult novels that tackle LGBTQ relationships and characters from a perspective that is not about “coming out” but because the characters were all underdeveloped, there wasn’t a chance to really explore the relationship. In fact, because the commentary is all from outsider Naomi’s perspective, and she never discusses it with either girl, and only with judgmental (but insightful and observant) Jeff, it’s never elevated above the stereotypes and seems only included for the shock value. Readers looking for a more nuance should check out Far From You by Tess Sharpe or Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour.

Overall, this was a forgettable book that won’t stand the test of time, but will be entertaining enough for some readers, particularly those who want their Gossip Girl a little more high brow. For a tale of the lives of the rich East Coast elite, We Were Liars was much more to my taste, especially in the writing style.

Recommended for fans of: MARC by Marc Jacobs dresses

Second opinions:

Alexa Loves Books: “Great, a contemporary YA retelling of The Great Gatsby, delivered on all three fronts. I was riveted to the page, even though I knew what was bound to happen by the end of the novel. Sara Benincasa has succeeded in breathing fresh life into a classic tale, sweeping me up completely with her debut novel.

Estelle at Rather Be Reading: “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.” 

Kirkus Reviews: “This retelling of The Great Gatsby—especially with the “edgy” twist of a lesbian relationship between Jacinta/Gatsby and Delilah/Daisy—disappoints, as the story’s original elements are good enough that riding Fitzgerald’s coattails isn’t necessary. Naomi’s voice and character are engaging, and her relationships with Jeff and her mother provide plenty of fodder for a coming-of-age novel. The Gatsby elements are the weakest, from the character types to the plot.” 

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Great by Sara Benincasa

  1. That’s too bad that this one didn’t live up to your expectations.I sort-of watched the Baz Luhrmann film version recently and own a copy of The Great Gatsby that I was planning to re-read soon (like you, I only read it in high school), But it sounds like I should stop after re-reading and not attempt to read this retelling, which is a shame. I love my retellings, but this sounds like it’s not entirely successful on that front. I’ll have to look out for other retellings of this story.

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