Z, A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler is an entertaining read especially for those interested in the myths and history of one of American literature’s most popular married couple. That said don’t expect to be swept away by Fitzgerald type prose, the book is well written but not literary. I’ll review the book briefly here and compare it to my previous knowledge of the Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In college I was lucky enough to take a class that concentrated on Fitzgerald. We read four out of the five novels, and most of his stories. For a few years I considered Fitzgerald my favorite author. I mostly liked the works of fiction, but was intrigued with how his life leaked into his fiction. From what I previously knew, Fowler’s new novel does not deviate that much from the common historic knowledge. However I learned some things too. First I knew that Fitzgerald and Hemingway had kind of a beef with each other, but I didn’t realize how much contact in Paris they had. And I didn’t know how much Fitzgerald promoted Hemingway early on to others. In Hemingway’s fantastic memoir, A Moveable Feast he is so dismissive of Fitzgerald. I think Fitzgerald gets only a few pages of Hemingway’s acknowledgement in that memoir. Basically Hemingway states in that memoir Fitzgerald was ruined by Zelda and the inability to hold his booze. So this novel contradicts that and makes it sound that the two were good friends and perhaps more for years. The second thing I did not know that were portrayed in the novel was that Fitzgerald on occasion was physically abusive to Zelda. I’m not saying this novel is wrong, but it paints a darker picture of Fitzgerald than I imagined.
Now I’ll get to the novel itself. The beginning is the courtship of Zelda and Scott. Scott Fitzgerald was stationed for the army in the south and started to court Zelda through the debutante balls. She was just about to turn eighteen, but he himself was only twenty-one. Basically they were in love but her father was against the courtship. When This Side of Paradise came out they married right away. Her parents did not attend the wedding apparently. The book shines in the description of their wedding at the Irish Cathedral I think in Manhattan. That is the part that most resembles the lore of the Fitzgeralds’ with a decadent attention to detail of fairy tale dimensions.
After that the novel highlights the different stages of their lives. All the books are mentioned. Not much attention is put to The Beautiful and the Damned, and that is the same one that in college we did not read. My professor when asked said it’s considered his worst. Later I read it, and although that it had a slow start, was amazed by some of the characters lives ruined by alcoholism. Alcoholism is a theme Fitzgerald constantly returned too, and I think he understood it. I think at a wedding I mentioned how The Beautiful and the Damned was considered his worst, and the person I talked to replied, ‘the worst of the best is probably pretty good.’
When the novel gets to The Great Gatsby it spends a good portion of the story line on that timeframe. The expectations were big, and he was disappointed with the sales. One thing the novel missed was the character Daisy Buchanan was modeled after Zelda. Gatsby while in the army courts her in the south, but does not get to have her. But he created a persona and accumulated wealth in order to get near her, and that green light across the river is the symbol for Daisy Buchanan. The novel doesn’t go into how Zelda felt about Daisy Buchanan.
In general I think this novel does justice to what the Fitzgeralds life must have been like in the years they lived in Paris. Along with the thrilling mix of authors and artists, they had excess that was troubling and problems with over spending. This is the part that Zelda starts to do her own writing, art, and even professional ballet dancing. From my prior knowledge I knew that they both accused each other of plagiarism. What I learned from this novel is that Fitzgerald tried to limit or discourage Zelda from following her passions. The novel asserts that Fitzgerald thought a woman’s duty was to be a home keeper and to promote the husband’s career. So it makes Fitzgerald to be kind of jerk, and therefore has ruined what I thought was one of my literary heroes.
I think this novel glossed over or speed up too much when it gets to the timeframe of when Tender is the Night came out. The novel on Zelda simply states she was disappointed and was mad that Nicole Diver was modeled so much after herself. I think that is too understated. The character Nicole Diver dark secret was that she was a mental patient from a privileged yet troubled background. From what I read about the author’s life Zelda was furious at him. Also Fitzgerald put ten years into this novel. In one famous signed copy of Tender is the Night he stated something like, ‘if you liked The Great Gatsby, you should love this as it’s from the heart.’ The commercial failure of Tender is the Night is really what ruined or deflated Fitzgerald, and I think this novel on Zelda should have spent more time on that. Tender is the Night is my favorite book by Fitzgerald. If you can get past the long first chapter where it seems they are only frolicking on the French Rivera it gets good, and I think the second part, the book is in three parts, is the best writing I’ve ever read. And the last few pages summarize the ruin of Dick Diver is such a great and depressing way.
Lastly, this novel could have handled Zelda Fitzgerald’s mental illness in a better way. Reading this it makes it seem that is wasn’t that debilitating. In the afterward it states her illness was misdiagnosed and was what would be modern Bipolar. But there is no denying that her illness changed the course of their lives. I think that more time could have been spent on her illness. One more minor complaint of the book is that it reads like it was written in 2013, or modern day. I think the Fitzgeralds or at least Scott were elitist, and probably did have their prejudices. I think that’s the problem with the bulk of historical fiction, should today’s standards be applied to stories that take place in the past? I guess the answer would be how closely one wants to be truthful to the time period. Anyway, this novel Z, the Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is worth a read if one likes to learn one’s history through stories instead of non-fiction.
One more thing I want to point out, Gatsby, the movie is coming out in a week. I’m going to see it, and from the previews I’ve seen it looks over the top. To me over the top makes sense because the new wealth of Gatsby was intentioned to be fantastically, and that is one reason it is timeless.