It seems as though every few years, some nearly forgotten classic novel has resurgence. (This interest is usually related somehow to a movie.) It happened with The Chronicles of Narnia, Anna Karenina, and now with The Great Gatsby. The spring blockbuster has reignited an interest in the Jazz era novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler, came just at the time when Gatsby is back on bestseller lists and a hit at the theater.
Zelda Fitzgerald was a small town Southern girl without the demure behavior. Her conduct scandalized her father, the judge, and was never quite lady-like enough for her mother, the homemaker. She meets F. Scott (so named because he is a descendant of Francis Scott Key) at a party during the late days of World War I. F. Scott is determined to become a great writer, and Zelda wants the excitement that he promises to bring to her predictable life.
When Scott and Zelda marry, life is lavish and party-filled. They spend their nights attending parties with Dorothy Parker and other luminaries. Zelda even takes to calling Scott “Deo”—because of his god-like demeanor. But just like Icarus, whose hubris led him to destruction, Scott would be consumed by his art and the pursuit of it. The demons of alcohol, too much money, and great ambition snare Scott as he strives to write the great American novel. He spends much time comparing his literary success to other artists. His friendship with Ernest Hemingway seems, on one hand, to be supportive, and on the other, just reinforces Scott’s artistic insecurity.
Zelda wants to create her own art, but she is stifled by Scott’s focus on his own. She publishes works under Scott’s name. Despite some health issues, she continues to seek meaning for her own life through ballet and painting. Her separation from the glittering life causes problems for her marriage, as Scott continues to try and be the life of the party. His relationship with Hemingway (which Zelda suspected for some time to be a homosexual one) is another impediment to her marital happiness—Zelda hated Hemingway.
Zelda is later hospitalized, partially because she has become compulsive about ballet. She practices nearly eight hours a day. What follows is one hospitalization after another and what surely seems to be the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. She ultimately dies in a hospital fire, separated from Scott.
The best parts of Z were the beginning and the end. Zelda was quite a character in her Southern town, and I felt as though I learned a great deal about her during the first third of the novel. The interaction between Scott, Zelda and Hemingway was also compelling. I had no idea that the two novelists even knew each other, let alone had such a close relationship. Their “buddy” dynamic was fascinating and unexpected. And to know that Hemingway may have used Zelda to inspire “A Moveable Feast”? Very interesting!
Zelda and Scott’s marriage falling apart felt inevitable, but it is hard to assign blame. They were both complex people, trying to ride the wave of success. The part of the book that did not work for me was the focus on their rise. I grew a bit bored with the tedium of literary celebrity alcohol fueled parties. However, this part of the novel was necessary as it showed the deterioration of the great Fitzgerald family.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fact based historical fiction. If you can endure the tedium of the party lifestyle and the celebrity name-dropping of the middle of the book, you will learn something about The Jazz Age and the Fitzgeralds. Zelda deserves not to be forgotten.
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina