The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My personal rating: 4 out of 5
My three sentence synopsis: In the 1920s, Nick Carraway leaves the Midwest city where his family has been prominent for three generations and sets out to make a life for himself selling bonds in New York City. Choosing to live in a commuting town outside of the city puts Nick at a curious intersection of upper and lower class society, of people who have always been on top and people who are trying to move up the ladder. It also gives Nick a supporting role in the drama that unfolds when his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, meets up with Tom and Daisy Buchanan.
The first morsel of prose: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.
Why I chose this book: This year I’m participating in the 2018 Reading Challenge posted on ModernMrsDarcy.com. I chose this novel for the category “A Classic You’ve Been Meaning to Read” for two reasons. First, because my husband read it in high school and didn’t like it, but then revisited it a few years ago and was impressed with it. Second, more than one review for No One is Coming to Save Us compared it to The Great Gatsby so I wanted to make sure I was familiar with the earlier novel so I could appreciate the literary allusions in the recent story.
No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts
My personal rating: 4 out of 5
My three sentence synopsis: JJ Ferguson grew up as a foster kid in Pinewood, North Carolina, and few people expected him to survive, let alone amount to anything. But when he returns, he has enough money to build a house on Brushy Mountain Road, the section of town where “the people are rich and their lives are so removed from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” This display of fresh wealth unsettles the declining factory town in general and has more direct consequences for three specific people: Ava, JJ’s high school sweetheart; Henry, Ava’s husband; and Sylvia, Ava’s mother.
The first morsel of prose: The house he’s building is done mostly. All that’s missing now is the prettying, stain on the sprawling deck, final finishing inside. At least that’s what they say. This house has been the talk around our small town. Not much happens here but the same, same: a thirteen-year-old girl waiting for the baby her mother’s sorry boyfriend gave her; the husband we wanted to believe was one of the good ones found out to be the worst kind of cheater with a whole other family two towns over. The same stupid surprises, the usual sadnesses. But this thing is strange. The boy we all saw grow up came back to us slim and hungry-gaunt like a coal miner. With money. JJ Ferguson made it. The poor child who lived with this grandmother, dead for years now, the ordinary boy we all fed when he wouldn’t leave at dinnertime, looking like he was waiting for somebody to ask him to play. We had no idea.
Why I chose this book: The title arrested my progress through the bookstore. Curious, I read the blurb and the reviews on the cover. When I suddenly found myself halfway through the first chapter, I decided I wanted to read it in the comfort of my living room.
Spoiler Warning: Normally, I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but I wanted to do a compare and contrast essay on these two books with the freedom to discuss anything that struck my fancy. So this is your spoiler warning. If you have not read these books and want to experience the twists and turns of the stories for yourself, then know that I recommend both these books and stop here. If you have read the books or don’t care about spoilers, by all means, continue on to the next section.
My experience with these books: Both of these writers are excellent at their craft. In fact, that’s really what kept me going through the first half of The Great Gatsby. Every night after I finished reading a section, my husband would eagerly ask, “What to you think so far?” and the first few nights my response was the same, “Fitzgerald’s writing is impressive, but I’m not sure what to do with the story–especially with these characters.” There wasn’t really anyone in the story who managed to win my sympathies. Everyone was so miserable with varying degrees of shallowness and cruelty. Granted, that was part of Fitzgerald’s point and I think it’s brilliant that he didn’t let the story drag on until you were beyond caring when the Mrs. Wilson is killed and everything falls apart. Despite my lack of affinity for the characters, once they set out on the fateful car trip, I was riveted. Fitzgerald’s execution of the story and the way he set up the themes it contained are what I admire most about this novel.
Both of these books have the same premise: a poor nobody makes a fortune and builds a house in an ostentatious neighborhood to impress the love of his youth who is currently married to someone else. But whereas Fitzgerald wrote about white people in New York in the 1920s, No One Is Coming to Save Us is set in a black community in present day North Carolina. And while some of Watts’ characters have similar motivations as their counterparts in The Great Gatsby, they are different people who have had different life experiences so when all the dominoes in this game are finally lined up and the first one is pushed, they fall in different directions. And I loved that! Ava is a more independent person than Daisy, so I was thrilled that when she realized JJ and Henry were more interested in proving themselves to each other than building the life she wants, Ava rejected them both. Watts’ characters were far more sympathetic to me than Fitzgerald’s cast, so I didn’t mind reading three times as many pages in No One Is Coming to Save Us. I think I was rooting for every character at some point in the story.
I was fascinated by Watts’ ability to shift from present to past in a character’s reverie the way we often experience memory in real life. I enjoyed seeing characters grapple with who they are versus who they want to be and how different characters deal with feeling trapped in their lives. Unfortunately, I don’t think Watts’ ending came anywhere close to being as masterful as Fitzgerald’s bombshell that paid off the building dread of last half of his book. Thus The Great Gatsby lost points based on my personal enjoyment of the book and No One Is Coming to Save Us lost points for a weak ending, so they both earned a 4-star rating from me.
If you’ve read one or both of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them!