This is a fictionalization of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The main events of their lives are fairly well-known: married in 1920, Fitzgerald was a professional writer who never saw the success in his own lifetime that his friend Hemingway did; the couple lived back-and-forth in France and the US; Zelda was “the first flapper” according to Scott; they were famously wild partiers, alcoholics, and rather nut jobs; Zelda was eventually institutionalized, and died in a mental hospital. They had one daughter. These main events are followed in the novel, which is told first-person by Zelda herself.
It started well. I really did love Zelda’s voice – as written by Fowler, and as read by Jenna Lamia. She’s spunky and irreverent, and likeable. She reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara from the very beginning, which is both a compliment and a caution: is she entirely original? I enjoyed what Fowler created in her fictionalized Zelda Fitzgerald, but I worried that she was overly informed by hindsight. Scott talks like he writes; Zelda speaks as if aware of her audience, aware of the legacy she’ll leave behind – which she wouldn’t have been, regardless of her faith in her husband, because his fame as we know it today came largely after both their deaths.
Ernest Hemingway likewise speaks in a caricatured version of one of his own heroes. This is a common technique when writing Hemingway into fiction: I recognize it from Midnight in Paris. I’m comfortable with people criticizing, even despising Hemingway; he’s my hero, but I certainly see his flaws. But I wish they wouldn’t make him into a cartoon, because that, I think, he wasn’t. He could be ridiculous, and he definitely overdid the machismo, but he was a complex human being, troubled, tortured, insecure, boastful and antagonistic; wouldn’t it be more fun, and more satisfying for a novelist, to write him as a full person than as a cartoon version of his own fiction? Ah well.
Expand this concept to apply to Scott Fitzgerald, too. I’m less qualified to speak about his life, having read much less about him than I have about Hemingway. However, I feel confident that neither Scott nor Zelda could have been as black-and-white as Fowler’s fictional characters are here. Scott Fitzgerald is a monster in this novel! Despicable, horrendous, a nightmare. I suspect that in life, he was, like Hemingway, capable of monstrosities, but also a full human being, with likeable bits alongside the flaws. Such a well-loved and artistically accomplished alcoholic would seem to have to be conflicted, ambiguous, and – importantly – multi-facted. Fowler’s characters lack facets. Similarly, though I have read still less about Zelda, my general understanding of her was that her dissipated party-girl period lasted well out of her early 20’s. The fictional Zelda we meet here becomes rather saintly after giving birth to her daughter. She is the squeaky-clean foil to Scott’s ogre; and I suspect that the one is as realistic as the other.
In contrast to this novel, I am simultaneously reading the yet-to-be-published The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing. Z suffers by comparison; Laing’s (nonfiction) work is very well researched, beautifully written (although I’ll try not to turn this into a review of her book!), and, to my point here, respects the dueling forces for good and evil in her subjects, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. (And Hemingway.) Possibly I would have appreciated Z more if it were presented not as historical fiction but as alternate history, since I am increasingly concerned that it’s not true to the history of the Fitzgeralds as we know it. Even then, however, fully developed characters should have complexity rather than read as saints and devils, so my concern remains.
The net effect of having read this book in the end is that I feel the need to go read up on Zelda a little more thoroughly; I’ll be looking for a biography next. She always struck me peripherally as a colorful, conflicted character: just the kind I like, that is. I’m always most interested in those individuals who offer both sympathetic and distasteful qualities in the same package; they’re so engrossing that way. One of Fowler’s major flaws, then, would be in having omitted my favorite character feature: ambiguity.
I began by enjoying this book, and Zelda’s voice and personality. Much of the middle troubled me, as the black-and-whiteness of the characters emerged. Scott was such a terrible husband that I was just frustrated and angry with him; and while these can be useful emotions to evoke in your reader, Fowler didn’t take me anywhere interesting or cathartic or instructive with them. Zelda briefly considers leaving Scott (because she is, after all, a saint and a martyr) and then realizes she can’t afford to support herself as a single woman, so she decides to stay. Very cut and dried, you see. Towards the end, when the couple is separated by Zelda’s incarceration in various mental institutions, I liked it a little better again; maybe removing the hateful Scott cheered me. But then it was disappointing to end with Scott’s death – Zelda lived another 8 years! but those years are handled only in an epilogue. Why couldn’t she have continued to speak in her own voice until she died? Perhaps this novel should have been called Z: A Novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald told through the eyes of Zelda. Hmph.
In closing, clearly, my concerns were many. I credit Fowler for entertaining me (at least early and late) with a likeable Zelda in a spunky Southern drawl, well read by narrator Lamia. But I was dissatisfied with many aspects of the art of the novel as executed here. Subjects like the Fitzgeralds offered so much opportunity for nuance, and catharsis, and analysis, that was not undertaken. Complex characters were flattened into single dimensions. And my limited knowledge of their lives makes me hesitant, but I worry about the historical accuracy, and I wish more information were given to indicate where the fiction begins. Several letters from Zelda to Scott and other friends are quoted; are these real letters? I don’t know; and I’d like to know. Credit Fowler with inspiring some further reading; but this experience in itself was less than satisfying. I can’t recommend that you spend your time on this book. There are lots of books written about the Fitzgeralds; start elsewhere. Me, I’m considering Tennessee Williams’s play, Clothes for a Summer Hotel.