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Book Review: The Great Gatsby

The Theatre Royal has recently seen the return of the fantastic Northern Ballet company performing one of their most popular shows, ‘The Great Gatsby’. This year is the 75th anniversary of author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death, and co-incidentally, his most famous work, The Great Gatsby, was published 90 years ago.

The Great Gatsby is the story of a young man called Nick Carraway who moves to the fashionable West Egg region of New York in the 1920’s. His neighbours are his cousin Daisy and her neglectful husband Tom, and a mysterious figure called Gatsby who throws wild parties but tells nobody how he got his fortune. Nick becomes friends with Gatsby and discovers that he and Daisy were in love many years ago. Gatsby is still in love with Daisy but her husband Tom (who is cheating with a mechanic’s wife named Myrtle) is suspicious and possessive. Nick is drawn into the complicated lies of his friends’ relationships, discovering a darkness under the dazzling parties that he had never suspected. With so many broken hearts, how can this story have a happy ending?

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Gatsby and Daisy in the Northern Ballet’s ‘The Great Gatsby’

Set against the backdrop of a hot summer in New York, The Great Gatsby is one of the great novels of the Jazz Age, which is the name given to a period of time in America and Europe when underground jazz bars flourished despite the Prohibition Act making alcohol illegal. This time is also sometimes called ‘The Roaring Twenties’, when rich young people held parties and ‘flappers’ (young women who flouted social conventions by drinking, wearing short skirts and cutting their hair short) were challenging society’s rules.

The Great Gatsby begins as a story about Nick trying to make it as a bond salesman in the Big Apple, but it quickly becomes the tale of Gatsby, Daisy, Tom and Myrtle’s romantic drama, which is one reason it has remained so popular since its publication in 1925. Daisy is trapped in a marriage she hates, while her husband cheats on her, and Gatsby throws fabulous parties but remains lonely deep down, standing on the shore outside his house and watching the green light across the lake that sits on the end of the dock outside Daisy’s house.

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The famous cover of the first edition

This generation was called ‘The Lost Generation’ because those that fought in World War One had come out cynical, and writers like Ernest Hemingway (who was a good friend of Fitzgerald) wrote about the war extensively. Though Fitzgerald couldn’t know this, soon the decadent world of the Jazz Age would come tumbling down in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.

The Great Gatsby might be a classic, but it’s also a great read, and very short. It’s been a huge influence on lots of books, TV shows and films since, not least Baz Lurhman’s recent film adaptation. If you like reading about fantastic parties, tragic lovers and New York during one of its greatest eras, try The Great Gatsby.

If you liked this…

Try The Beautiful and Damned (BOOK ZONE 823.91) by the same author, believed to be largely based on his relationship with Zelda Fitzgerald, his brilliant but unpredictable wife. For an exploration of society in the early twentieth century and the impact the First World War had, give The Beautiful and Damned a go.

For a British equivalent, read Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (BOOK ZONE 823.91) or watch the film adaptation Bright Young Things (BOOK ZONE 823.91), the story of between-the-wars hedonism in 1920’s London and the dark reality beneath the surface.

During the Prohibition era, alcohol was smuggled around the country by bootleggers (like Gatsby) and underground bars were popular, which contributed to the rise of organised crime and mob bosses like Al Capone and Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. The Untouchables (1987) is the true story of the struggle of famous prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) to put Al Capone in prison. For a lighter take on Prohibition, try Bugsy Malone (1976), a musical about teenaged gangsters who use guns that shoot custard pies in daring raids on rival gangs. It stars a young Jodie Foster and is great fun, even though it’s a humorous version of a very dark period in history.

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