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. (…)
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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.