Published by NAL
Publication date: May 7th 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical
With another film version of The Great Gatsby coming out this week, now is the perfect time for new fiction about the life of the Fitzgeralds or, more specifically, Zelda Fitzgerald. There are many stories circulated about her outrageous behavior but it is much like the paparazzi today—what is real and what is exaggerated or fabricated? In her new book, Call Me Zelda, Erika Robuck looks at the last years of Zelda’s life. Gone is the exuberance of youth and new love and now both Zelda and Scott are trying to find a way to survive. As the novel begins she is being checked into the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic near Baltimore. She is assigned a nurse near her age, who is thought to be particularly adept at soothing distraught patients. Her name is Anna and in time we’ll learn that her story is as compelling as Zelda’s.
As the title indicates, Zelda is desperate to forge her own identity and on an even more elemental level, to express herself. Fitzgerald’s use of her as a muse, to the point of taking her diaries and copying sentences from them into his novels, is psychically damaging to both of them. The co-dependence reaches a level where, with his alcoholism and her emotional fragility, they could neither be around each other nor be apart. When Zelda begins to improve at the clinic, Scott decides it’s time for her to return to their life, largely because he cannot seem to finish his latest novel. He succeeds in his efforts to get her released and they move into a home nearby.
“Because he thinks he should be enough for me. He needs me to orbit him. He wishes to pluck me from orbit when he needs me and then send me back once he’s used me up.”
Anna Howard is Zelda’s nurse and a woman who quickly forges a strong bond with her. She provides a quiet and positive presence for Zelda, allowing her to creatively express herself by writing, something which Scott, in his insecurity, does not wish her to do. Anna has her own demons, her husband went missing during the war and is presumed dead and her five-year-old daughter died of pneumonia. She subverts her grief into devotion to her patients, as if by healing others she will heal herself.
The maelstrom created by the Fitzgeralds affects everyone around them. With the same sudden, unexplained nature of such a storm, Zelda whirls around Anna, dislodging her from her own world. As the book progresses we see both becoming less and less stable. In the case of Zelda this is accompanied by the disintegration of her marriage. For Anna, the battle is more internalized. She continues to help Zelda, going so far as to promise her she will find her long lost diaries, but inside her efforts to move on from her grief do not work and she begins to push away everyone around her. To capture the rawness of a marriage coming undone, in all its brutality and tenderness, is feat enough, but Robuck combines the stories of Anna and Zelda in a way that allows us to see the impact of Zelda on Anna until, in her own way, Anna appears to be coming unhinged herself. It isn’t until Zelda is readmitted to the clinic and all contact between them ceases, that Anna begins to find her way back.
Throughout the book Robuck writes with such skillful and passionate prose that the unfolding tragedy of the Fitzgeralds leaches off the page. The tension is enervating, as if one were witnessing these horrible private moments, made all the more egregious on Scott’s part because Zelda is already so damaged as to be out of her mind at times. Anna’s pain is palpable at not being able to help any of them and watching the utter mental destruction of a woman she has come to love. All seem doomed, but as Anna moves slowly back into her old life, she releases ghosts and moves on, yet never forgets her promise. Ultimately she returns to Zelda, and now Anna is the calm after the storm, giving her friend a much needed sense of peace and closure. Like Zelda, we are grateful.