I often read in themes.
Last year, I taught a unit on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to a class of high school sophomores. This combined with the 2013 film THE GREAT GATSBY starring Leonardo Di Caprio, got me in the mood to read more Fitzgerald, and so I read Tender Is The Night considered by many to be Fitzgerald’s most autobiographical novel.
Now comes Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, a fictional account of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott, who often is cited as being the ruin of her famous husband.
Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald paints a sympathetic portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald, and in this meticulously researched work of historical fiction, author Therese Anne Fowler takes the stance that more often than not, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who incurred the majority of the damage in their troubled relationship, and it was Fitzgerald who actually held his wife back and ruined her career.
Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald opens with a teenage Zelda living in the Deep South—Montgomery, Alabama—with her large southern family, under the guiding hand of her patriarch father, the judge. When Zelda meets Scott, he is an officer in the army, on his way to serve in Europe in the Great War. Even during these early years, Scott is teeming with confidence and tells Zelda he’s going to be one of the greatest American authors. They fall in love, much against her father’s wishes, who sees life as an author as a poor career, one that will not be able to support his daughter. But they will have to wait, as Scott is about to be shipped off to Europe.
During these early scenes, Fowler really brings the courtship of these two young lovers to life. Take this scene, for example, where Zelda and Scott dance for the first time:
He danced as well as any of my partners ever had- better, maybe. It seemed to me that the energy I was feeling that night had infused him, too; we glided through the waltz as if we’d been dancing together for years.
I liked his starched, woolly, cologne smell. His height, about five inches taller than my five feet four inches, was, I thought, the exact right height. His shoulders were the exact right width. His grip on my hand was somehow both formal and familiar, his hand on my waist both possessive and tentative. His blue-green eyes were clear, yet mysterious, and his lips curved just slightly upward.
The result of all this was that although we danced well together, I felt off-balance the entire time. I wasn’t used to this feeling, but, my goodness, I liked it.
Fate intervenes, as the Great War is suddenly over, and Scott is spared going off to battle. In a state of jubilation, Scott proposes to Zelda, promising her a wonderful life, eager to whisk her off to New York City for a grand time, one that she could never have imagined before. Seeing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to leave her southern rural life behind, Zelda agrees. She and Scott marry, and the next thing she knows she’s living in the greatest city in the world, New York.
Zelda and Scott begin their life together on top of the world. Zelda is absolutely flabbergasted by everything in New York City, and she and Scott are head over heels in love with each other.
The buildings, the people, the noise of engines and whistles and voices, the commotion of cars clattering past! I glanced at my sister; she looked frightened. I laughed and said, “I might never leave!”
But when the entry and front spires of St. Patrick’s came into view, my eyes filled with tears. I’d never seen a structure that was at once so ornate and so serene. The sight- the complexity of architecture, the graceful, intricately carved spires towering over the street, inlaid with smaller intricately carved spires, all of them topped by crosses- literally stole my breath. No wonder the woman at the station had looked impressed.
The thought of being married in this church felt overwhelming, but fitting, too; I was convinced that ours was no ordinary union. Scott was no ordinary fiancé. How, though, had he engineered this?
And Scott even manages to make good on his promise to support her through his writing. His short stories sell with regularity, to great critical acclaim, and even better, for top dollar. His early novels, This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby also sell well, and money is not a problem for Scott and Zelda.
In this scene, Zelda and Scott spot a display of his novel in Scribner’s bookstore:
The window display featured a number of books individually. Copies of Scott’s, though, had been built into a pyramid that dominated the display. In front of the pyramid was a sign:
At only twenty-three years of age, Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald is the youngest writer for whom Scribner’s have ever published a novel.
I said, “Is that true?”
“This is my husband’s book!” I shouted, pointing to the display. Passersby smiled. I turned to Scott and said, just to him, “And this is my husband.”
They become almost drunk with success.
“Are we rich?” I asked.
“We are unstoppable.”
Not quite. Scott and Zelda live way beyond their means, attending one social event after another, spending money on whatever they want, living the highlife, and consuming alcohol, plenty of alcohol. Scott even receives offers from Hollywood, where the real money is, and it seems for a time that they will be unstoppable. Even better, they become national celebrities, trend setters, and it seems the entire nation knows Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
But then the rejections start. Scott’s Hollywood scripts are turned down, and suddenly he finds himself suffering from massive writer’s block, as he can’t seem to finish his next novel. They move to Europe, where they socialize in a literary circle unheralded before this time. Scott meets Ernest Hemingway, who he sees as a younger author who he would like to mentor, but according to Zelda, he spends too much time helping Hemingway instead of his own works.
With Scott seemingly completely focused on Hemingway, Zelda begins to feel alone and ignored, and she seeks attention elsewhere. The pattern begins, an extramarital affair, depression, illness, Scott’s deepening alcoholism, and soon what was heaven is now hell.
Zelda tries her turn at writing, and she publishes several short stories, all of which she’s told by Scott and his agent must be published with both her name and Scott’s in the byline, as they wouldn’t sell without Scott’s name, even though Scott did not write them. Eventually, her name is dropped and only Scott’s remains, even though again, she wrote the story.
When Zelda is committed to a sanitarium, the doctors there tell her not to write anymore, because that will only upset her, and Scott agrees. She grows distant from her daughter Scottie, who grows closer to her father.
In this story, there are no happy endings. As Zelda fights to regain her mental health, she dreams of getting back together with Scott, who has professed to her that in spite of everything, he will never leave her, but at the age of 44, he does just that, dying of a heart attack, leaving Zelda alone. She lives the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums, and it is in a sanitarium that she dies, in a fire.
Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a compelling read, mostly because Fowler has done such a masterful job of telling the story of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald that it practically plays like fact. She captures the lives of these two flamboyant personalities so naturally and with such confident ease that it’s easy to accept these things as true.
The early scenes profiling Zelda’s infatuation with New York City are particularly effective. Fowler also does a fine job showing how much Zelda and Scott love each other, setting up the reader for the emotional toil of having to read the details of when it all goes downhill and falls apart. Then there’s Ernest Hemingway, portrayed here as a manipulative predator, who’s kind and accepting of Zelda until she rejects his sexual advances.
In an Afterward, author Fowler explains that she wrote this interpretation of the Fitzgeralds based on exhaustive research, and it shows, although she admits it’s difficult to find the truth, as the two sides, Scott’s on the one, and Zelda’s on the other, both blame each other for the other’s problems. Fowler writes that she based most of her story on what she found in the letters written by Scott and Zelda.
My favorite part is that Fowler depicts in Zelda and Scott a complicated relationship that at its core is held together by a love that neither one of the two ever wanted to see end. Through it all, the alcohol, the extra marital affairs, the writing struggles, the bouts with mental illness, Scott and Zelda never stopped loving each other, and it’s this central theme that Fowler keeps throughout the novel that makes the eventual ending all the more sad and tragic.
In spite of their problems, they truly loved each other.
Near the end, Zelda is devastated by one reviewer’s reference to her work as “the work of a wife,” that after all these years of trying to make it in the world on her own, she has never been able to get out of the shadow of her husband Scott, and that her legacy, how she will be remembered in the world, will be as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at this point in the story that Zelda pretty much gives up.
Time magazine ran a review and had found a label for me: Work of a Wife, read the headline, and despite the praise that followed in the body of the review, I felt myself deflating.
That was it. W-I-F-E, my entire identity defined by the four letters I’d been trying for five years to overcome.
Why was it that every time I finally chose, every time I did, my efforts failed- I failed- so miserably? Why was I so completely unable to take control of my own life? Was there any point to it, for me? I’d thought it was Scott I’d been fighting against, but now I wondered if it was Fate.
When I was young, I’d believed that it would be awful to try and try and try at something only to find that you could never succeed. Now I knew I’d been right: I was not a sufficient dancer, or writer, or painter, or wife, or mother. I was nothing at all.
Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a fascinating chronicle of one of America’s most celebrated literary couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, seen through the eyes of Zelda. They lived their own version of Gatsby, fighting for a lost dream, and like Jay Gatsby, constantly struggled to repeat the past, to reclaim a past that they viewed as ideal, a battle that like the famous literary character they ultimately lost.
It’s a sad tragic tale brought to vivid life by Fowler’s sharp and insightful prose.
A highly recommended read.