Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

16002030From Amazon: “I wish I could tell everyone who thinks we’re ruined, Look closer… and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we seemed.”

When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.

What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time. (…)

☺ ☺ ☺

I wish I would have liked this book a little better. I wanted to! But despite the well-written prose and the interesting historical tidbits throughout, Zelda did not come alive for me. In fact, I didn’t like Zelda or Scott very much in this book. I didn’t see anything “extraordinary” or “mystifying,” and so even when things fell apart for Zelda, I read about it with surprising indifference.

Zelda was only 17 when she met Scott. They got married quickly and moved to New York City. I can’t blame her for being overwhelmed by the enormous change in her life. Anything they wanted and more was handed to them, and of course they took full advantage of it. Scott was already very good at manipulating Zelda and everyone else around him. While Zelda initially had some qualms about giving up who she truly was not only in public but also in private, Scott seemed to have no second thoughts about fully embracing being the poster boy of the Jazz Age. Soon, you could see the trouble brewing on the horizon….

Initially, I saw only two selfish, shallow people partying and loving all the attention, but as Scott turned into a full-blown alcoholic, I started to feel a bit sorry for Zelda. She was stuck in an unhappy marriage, unable to redefine herself (her flapper self apparently provided Scott with material for his short stories and books), and forced to follow her husband wherever he wanted to go. In addition, she battled with physical and mental health problems. It was sad that she—who seemed so strong and invincible during the early Twenties—had to subject herself to “reeducation” about a wife’s proper place when she started to have mental breakdowns. I think this could have been a much stronger aspect of the book: the clash between being expected to be the quintessential Flapper and the traditional wife and mother at the same time. However, the first-person narrative does not really allow for this.

It might be because I just read The Paris Wife that I didn’t find Scott’s and Zelda’s “adventures” during the Twenties quite as interesting as I expected. It didn’t help that both books present clashing pictures of “The Hemingways” and “The Fitzgeralds.” Instead of wanting to read more by either F. Scott or Zelda, I found myself pondering whether Paula McLain (author of The Paris Wife) and Therese Anne Fowler know each other and whether they might like each other. Or would their negative portrayal of the Fitzgeralds and Ernest Hemingway, respectively, prevent them from being friends? It’s rather silly to think about, but it shows that I was unfortunately not fully vested in Zelda.

This was my second book for Jazz Age January hosted by Books Speak Volumes. Too bad I didn’t like it as much as the first one. Still, since I apparently continue to crave biographies about famous couples of the Twenties, I have purchased a copy of Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story by Amanda Vaill. I’m looking forward to reading that one, though I will probably not get to it this January.

For another review of Z, head on over to Arabella’s Genteel Arsenal.

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19 comments

  1. I read this after reading some of Fitzgerald’s work in preparation for it and ground to a halt with Tender is the Night. At the beginning of Z, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it, and certainly if Zelda had stayed in her hometown I would not have, but once she left for France and started to develop her own interests and her whole dissatisfaction with not being fulfilled as a mother and an artist/individual I found really interesting. Her whole flapper persona was something of a ruse I thought, underneath she was ambitious and may have had quite a different life had she been allowed to pursue her creative endeavours with the same freedom as her husband.

    Her demise was truly tragic, Hadley Richardson by contrast,did appear to have found happiness post Hemingway, although ironically, the author is not at all interested in that aspectopf her life – the cult of the celebrity – only by association with a better known figure are we supposedly interested in her.

    In terms of the book itself, I just found that after a slow start, there was a point where I became much more attentive and involved in her story, so it was a success for me. I enjoyed reading The Paris Wife, but had an issue about the insignificance of the rest of her life. I also read A Moveable Feast at the same time as Z, the first Hemingway book I have actually liked!

    • I have yet to meet a person who likes both Z and The Paris Wife. It seems like people prefer one or the other, but never like both to the same extend. I have to say that it didn’t bother me too much that the rest of her life was not talked about much. At times, it was hard for me to remember that both Z and The Paris Wife were fictionalized biographies, which speaks well for both authors.

  2. Sorry to hear this book was a disappointment! I’m always a little bit nervous about historical novels like this; who knows how accurate the portrayal is? I just started reading Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda, which might interest you if you want to know more about her.

    • I’m still glad I read it. I need a little break from the Twenties after this month, but I will check out your review of Zelda’s biography. If you like it, I’ll add it to my TBR list. 🙂

  3. I totally agree with your assessment. This book made me want to read some of Fitzgerald’s writing with a new perspective although I might need a break from all the narcissism and shallowness. They were all so young is now on my reading list.

  4. This is interesting. I read the books the other way around and felt the same as you though I liked Z better than the Paris Wife. I did enjoy the conflicting views of the same situation, it makes me wonder what the truth is.

  5. As someone with a literary blog, I write about Fitzgerald often, so I’m obviously very into Zelda. I need to read this book! I’m so glad you’ve written about it. I am so interested in Zelda and her relationship with Scott. Great post!

  6. I haven’t read this book, but I did read The Paris Wife. Sadly, I think that the Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway were extremely selfish, egotistical, arrogant, self-centred and careless people. They struggled to be responsible for anything except their own good time. They treated each other appallingly in their search for fun and still they were surprised when people treated them as badly in return!
    Having said all that, I love reading books about this era – it’s fascinating – a disaster dressed up in gorgeous clothes 🙂

  7. Thank you for the link! The first person narration is a problem, did you feel that it allowed the author to be a bit selective in what she included? And just using Zelda’s voice seemed to make the tone a bit flat. She seems to leave out a lot of incident that would paint Zelda in a more negative light. Shallow, selfish people pretty much sums up both Scott and Zelda. I am finding the jazz age fascinating but I am mystified at the behaviour of some of the participants and the celebration of that behaviour. I looked at Everybody was so young and wondered about that one, so when you do read it I will be interested to read your thoughts.

    • Like you, I did find the first-person narrative a little limiting. Maybe I would have appreciated the book more if I had had more background knowledge of Zelda. But lacking that knowledge, Zelda didn’t come to life for me in this book. I started to read some short stories by Dorothy Parker, but had to put them aside because I had enough of all the alcohol for a while. 🙂

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