Book Review: Great by Sara Benincasa

Posted April 16, 2014 by Stormy in Books / 2 Comments

Great

by Sara Benincasa

Great

Expected Publication Date: April 8, 2014
Length: 272 pages
Publisher: HarperTeen

Obtained Via: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review via Edelweiss from the publisher. I was not compensated for this review, and this is no way affects my opinion of the book.
Format Read In: E-ARC
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In Sara Benincasa’s contemporary retelling of The Great Gatsby, a teenage girl becomes entangled in the drama of a Hamptons social circle, only to be implicated in a tragedy that shakes the summer community.

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.

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I feel I should start this review by saying that Great absolutely worked for me, and I don’t expect it to work for many readers. Why? Well, as a Great Gatsby retelling, the characterization stays pretty close to the original. And if you don’t know what that means, basically 95% of the characters in Great are people you would want to punch in the face. If you like sympathetic or likable characters, Great is not the book for you. If you’re interested in a modern retelling with a stunning atmosphere, and a sense that something is going to go wrong any moment, well then, you might want to pick this book up.

As a retelling, Great stays pretty close to the original in terms of basic plot. I knew something awful was going to happen, but the entire time I was holding my breath, hoping I was wrong and that maybe Great could have a happier ending than it’s source material. Naomi provides an outsider perspective to the Hamtpon socialites she finds herself hanging with that summer. She meets Jacinta at the start and becomes friends. Jacinta is. . . Jay Gatsby, which made the gender flips quite interesting. Daisy becomes Delilah, and Naomi is the person they need to help them reconnect, which she does without even knowing.

Throughout the entire time of Great, you really get that Naomi is an outsider in this world that the other inhibit all the time, and you wonder what Jacinta’s hiding. Even knowing the original source material(though reading this reminded me I really need to brush up on my Gatsby knowledge), I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering what it would be this time. It becomes evident early on that Teddy, Delilah’s boyfriend, isn’t going to let Jacinta off the hook so easily. He plays around with the truth until everyone suffers for it.

Much like the original story, there’s a whole discussion surrounding class, social privilege, and in this incarnation, gender and sexuality issues waiting to be explored. If I had a complaint with Great, it might be that the book didn’t dive into these issues nearly enough. I would have liked to see more consideration of the changes Benincasa made to the characters.

“We’re all snobs, honey,” She said. “I just say it’s how I was raised.”
“It’s not how I was raised,” I said.
“Sure,” Olivia said. “You’re here, at this fabulous party, with all these fabulous people, all of us looking fabulous in white, drinking the same wine and eating the same food, listening to the same hired band in the same backyard of the same mansion–and you’re different?” She laughed a nasty little laugh. “Sure you are.”

(Quote taken from Advanced Reader’s Copy and should be checked against final publication). The questions raised in this quote–Is Naomi a much a snob as the rest of them are? could have been explored more in the book, but I think, ultimately, in many ways it was. At the end of the book, we see everyone deal with a problem in different ways, and it’s clear Naomi’s reaction is the one most of us would have. The other characters in the book, used to skirting around rules and playing their privilege cards in their favor, have a different idea of how to deal with it.

And then there’s Jacinta, who is just endlessly fascinating. She builds a certain life, and all around her everyone tries to tear it down, and even though this is a retelling, I was on the edge of my seat wondering how she would react in the end. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say it was fitting considering her character–and not just as the Gatsby character, but the characteristics Benincasa gave her.

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All in all, Great was a fitting modern retelling set in the Hamptons. Naomi’s outsider perspective was done really well–the entire time, she perches on a ledge being being an outsider and getting swept up in this world. But Jacinta as the Gatsby character was completely fascinating, and every time she was on the page I wondered what she was going to do next. Considering the changes Benincasa made, I did think Great missed an opportunity to explore some of that social commentary more, but it’s definitely there if you want to dig below the surface. 4/5 cupcakes.

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4 Stars

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2 responses to “Book Review: Great by Sara Benincasa

  1. HMMMM I just can’t tell how I’ll feel about this. I actually didn’t even add it to my TBR because of the Gatsby retelling and I just didn’t feel like i’d like it BUT I have been seeing so many good reviews for it. So torn! Maybe I should stick with my gut though.

    • Stormy

      It sticks REALLY close with the source material. REALLY close. I mean, other than making Jay Gatsby Jacinta. But plot-wise, it stays really close, so maybe trust your instincts in this case? I mean I really liked it(obviously), but I could tell when reading it wouldn’t be for everyone and honestly I expected more people NOT to like it. I’ve been kinda surprised at that.

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