Nghi Vo’s “The Chosen and the Beautiful” is this month’s Ballerina Book Club pick. The following excerpt is drawn from the book’s opening pages, when we meet Jordan Baker, Daisy, Tom and Nick.
Enjoy the read and be sure to follow along here for updates.
Excerpt from “The Chosen and the Beautiful” by Nghi Vo
The wind came into the house from the Sound, and it blew Daisy and me around her East Egg mansion like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam, like a pair of young women in white dresses who had no cares to weigh them down.
It was only June, but summer already lay heavy on the ground, threatening to press us softly and heavily towards the parquet floors. We could not stand to go down to the water where the salt air was heavier still, and a long drive into the city felt like an offensive impossibility.
Instead, Daisy cracked open a small charm that she purchased on a whim in Cannes a few short years ago. The charm was made of baked clay in the shape of a woman, and when Daisy broke it to crumbling bits in her fingers, it released the basement smell of fresh kaolin clay mixed with something dark green and herbal. There was a gust of wind of a different kind, and then we were airborne, moving with languid grace along the high ceilings of her house and exclaiming at the strangeness and the secrets we found there. A single flick of our hands or feet sent us skimming through the air, at first adrift and then with surges of speed as we pushed away from the mantels and the columns.
We discovered a rather shocking miniature tableau of Leda and the swan above the bookshelves in the library, and we were so quiet over the heads of a pair of maids that we could flick back their starched white caps before they saw us and shrieked. In the nursery, while Pammy slept, we floated above her like slightly rumpled guardian angels. Daisy reached down to touch her daughter’s face with a gentle finger, but when the little girl stirred, Daisy fled, dragging me out of the room with her.
The summer rendered the manor mute that day, and we haunted its silence, moving from place to place before finding ourselves in one of the guest rooms close to the one I was using. The pale green damask wallpaper gave the room a forested look, absorbing everything but the pleasure of being so weightless. I floated on my back, running my fingers along the peak of the window casement and gazing at the bay beyond the glass. It was impossible to imagine how cold the water might be, but I tried, half-napping with my legs dangling down at the knee and one hand resting lightly on my chest. I was half asleep when Daisy spoke up.
“Oh look, Jordan. Do you think it’s my color?”
She plucked an enamel pot the size of a Liberty half-dollar from the top of the wardrobe. Lazily curious, I floated closer.
“Who did that belong to?” I wondered out loud.
“What does it matter?” she responded gaily, and she was right, because she and Tom had bought the whole of the manor—from the sprawling grounds down to the beach, the stables, the ghosts, and the history—all for their own.
She opened the enameled pot to reveal a mixture of wax and pigment, a dusty dark no-color until she warmed it with a few hard rubs of her thumb. She spread some of it neatly on first her lower lip and then her upper, and then she hovered upside down over the vanity’s mirror to examine her reflection. When I drifted nearer to see the deep rose on her lips, she drew me close and did mine as well.
“Look, we match,” she said, tugging me down to gaze at my own face in the mirror, but of course we didn’t. She had been a Louisville Fay, with a lineage as close to royalty as the United States would allow, and it showed in her dark blue eyes, her sleek black hair, and the generous width of her smiling mouth. For my part, I was nominally a Louisville Baker, a name with its own distinguished history, but it had always hung oddly on me, adopted from distant Tonkin and with a face that people variously guessed was Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Venezuelan, or even Persian.
The lipstick looked old-fashioned on her, giving her an antique air, but it brought out the red in my skin, roses instead of tomato, more lively than not. Daisy murmured with pleasure over the difference, and she stuffed the little pot into my pocket, saying of course it was meant to be mine.
She paused with her hand on my hip, both of us hanging upside down in front of the mirror. It was one of Daisy’s moments of intense stillness, rare when she was a girl and growing rarer. It gave her pretty face a slackness and an odd hollowness that suggested that anything might have come in to nest behind her eyes.
“I am glad you came when I called you,” she said with a slight hiccup. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t.”
“Been prostrate with grief and pined for me, I imagine,” I said lightly, and she smiled with relief.
We both looked up when we heard the distant slam of the front door, and then, louder and more insistent, the boom of Tom’s voice. There was a briefly startled look on Daisy’s face, as if she had forgotten any world where we did not merely drift along the ceiling of her enormous house, and then she took my arm.
“Of course, that’s right,” she said, pulling me towards the door. “We’ve arranged to have my cousin to dinner tonight. Come along, my darling, I promise you will find him utterly delightful.”
“Well, if you say so, I’m sure he is.”
It was Daisy’s avocation, setting up her friends and making connections between the members of the right set. She was somewhat famous for it, leaving plenty of variously happy couples and namesake babies in her wake. I had always been a bit of a failure for her, something that I decided was more amusing than anything else. I did well enough for myself, after all, back in Louisville and now in the years since I had come to New York.
We came back in the tall sun porch where we had started, settling on the enormous couch at the center of the room. We tamed our ruffled hair and smoothed down our dresses just moments before Tom appeared in the doorway. He was followed, with a touch of reluctance, by a rangy young man in shirtsleeves, his jacket thrown over his arm and his quick dark eyes taking in everything around him with interest.
He entered with an easy smile and a certain dislike for Tom, which made me like him right away. He gave me a second look, but didn’t stare, and he came to kneel next to Daisy’s end of the couch, paying her the court she liked best. They spoke of the time they’d passed in Chicago while I was allowed to do what I liked best, which was to watch from a cool distance before I had to chance an engagement. Tom hovered close by, finally trampling their conversation with a question of Daisy’s cousin’s occupation and by coincidence giving me his name: Nick Carraway of the St. Paul Carraways, only son, war hero, and apparently at loose ends after coming back from overseas.
I remembered vaguely that I had heard of some kind of trouble between him and a girl from St. Paul, a Morgan or a Tulley, something dishonorable, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he sat as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He looked like a polite man, though of course you can never tell.
I wondered that Tom couldn’t seem to recognize the barbs in Nick’s words to him, barbs that made Daisy’s eyes glint a little. Acid under the good manners, and I liked that quite well. More interesting by far than the war hero was someone with some bite to him, and I thought that rather a lot of people might not know that about Nick.
When he scored another point off Tom, making Daisy’s husband snort and declaim, I sat up with a laugh.
“Absolutely!” I said in agreement, giving Nick permission to look at me fully. I smiled at him, levering myself off of the couch and letting him see a little more. I was in my low gray suede heels, giving me a soldier’s jaunty carriage; when I rolled my shoulders back to ease the cramp that was forming there, I saw him lower his eyes briefly with a slight smile.
The butler entered with four tall glasses filled with something delicious, and at a murmured word from Daisy, he added two garnet red drops to each tumbler from a rock crystal vial.
“I’m in training,” I said with a regretful sigh, but I took my glass anyway, sipping appreciatively. The cocktail was a good one—the Buchanans hadn’t ever been ones to stint where it truly counted, and it was no different when it came to the demoniac. The ban on demon’s blood had come down just four months before the one on alcohol, and now two years later the good vintages were disappearing from even the better clubs in Manhattan.
Daisy licked her lips like a pleased cat, and even Tom sipped his drink with a kind of somber respect for its quality. Nick drank more cautiously, and I remembered that the Middle West had crashed into Prohibition faster and more readily than the rest of us had. The demoniac was older and richer than what even Aunt Justine kept carefully locked away in the Park Avenue apartment we shared. It stung my lips and warmed my throat until I imagined myself breathing out flickers of candle flame. Legend said it could make tyrants from good men, but it only made me a little mean.
“Drink up,” I told Nick. “This isn’t St. Paul. You’re in New York now, even if you do live in West Egg.”
He blinked at me slowly, that slight smile still on his face.
“I do, though I hardly know anyone there.”
“I do,” I said. “And you must. You must know Gatsby.”
“Gatsby? What Gatsby?” asked Daisy, blinking at me. Her eyes were dilated almost black and she had bitten some of the lipstick off of her lower lip. I was about to tease her for being no better with demon’s blood than Nick was when dinner was announced.
Daisy came to take my arm, cutting me off from Nick and Tom as neatly as a sheepdog would, and when she leaned against me, I could smell the bitter almond and candied lemon scent of the demoniac on her breath.
“I need to talk to Nick. Alone, do you understand?” she said, her words hurried and slurred, and I stared at her. She sounded nearly drunk, slightly unsteady on her feet. She never drank to drunkenness that I knew of, save once. The darkness in her eyes and the slight unsteadiness in her step was for something else, and I hastily agreed.
Daisy was a fluttering nervy thing at dinner, snuffing out the candles distractedly as we ate only for the servants to relight them when she wasn’t looking. Tom ignored her, but I could see Nick growing more uneasy, his eyes darting between Daisy and me as if thinking there was surely an explanation. There wasn’t, any more than there was for anything else, and it was almost a relief when Nick made an innocent comment about civilization that sent Tom barking after one of his particular hobby horses. He shook his head hard, blowing air through his nostrils like one of his own prize polo ponies.
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” he told us all angrily. “Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? It’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out, the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy solemnly. “He reads deep books with long words in them.”
Nick looked back and forth between them as if he wasn’t sure what to make of this, but he relaxed when I winked at him across the table, on the side Tom couldn’t see.
“This fellow has worked out the whole thing,” Tom said, stabbing a finger into the white tablecloth. “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
“You’ve got to beat us down, of course,” I said dryly, and Nick covered a laugh with his napkin.
Tom arched his neck, glaring at me suspiciously as if unsure what I might mean, and next to me Daisy giggled, just a little hysterical, though this was hardly anything new to us.
“The thing is, Jordan, we Nordics, we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. That’s what the Manchester Act wants to protect. Do you see?”
There were a dozen things I could have said to that, ranging in order from least cutting to downright murderous, but then the phone rang and the butler came to fetch Tom from the table. Tom went with a kind of confused irritation, and Daisy’s mouth opened, and closed again.
Then she dammed up the coming disaster by turning the full force of her Fay blue eyes on Nick. I was used to them after years of acquaintance, but he certainly wasn’t. He got a slightly dazed look as she leaned in closer to him. Her voice spiraled higher than it usually went, just a hair shy of shrill, shyer yet of sensible.
“I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a—of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn’t he?” Daisy turned to me with a flourishing hand gesture, a magician pulling a rose out of a soldier. “An absolute rose?”
He looked nothing like a rose, but I nodded anyway, watching Daisy warily. Her small hand was clenched into a fist next to her half-eaten fish, and I could see the little bruise on the knuckle, the one Tom had given her by grabbing her hand too hard just a day ago.
“Daisy…” I said, but she threw her napkin on the table and stalked after Tom without a single excuse, leaving Nick and me alone.
“So you mentioned my neighbor Gatsby,” Nick started, but I held up my hand.
My spine and shoulders felt as stiff as wood, my ear strained like piano wire as I listened for something from the next room where the telephone was kept.
“What in the world is happening?” Nick asked, apparently bewildered. Perhaps things were not done like this in St. Paul, or perhaps he was better at playing the innocent than any debutante I had ever met. I didn’t much care.
Copyright © 2021 by Nghi Vo.
Top Image: "The Chosen and the Beautiful" by Nghi Vo