Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: March 26th 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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The lifestyle of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda have intrigued readers for generations as arbiters of the Jazz Age. Many of their antics were public knowledge thanks to a press that hounded them almost as assiduously as the paparazzi does to celebrities today. And while both he and Zelda were copious letter writers there is much left unknown about Zelda’s private life. Author Therese Anne Fowler uses what biographical material is out there in combination with the plethora of correspondence to create her insightful, engrossing novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.
We meet Zelda when she is seventeen and the spoiled, carefree daughter of a prominent judge in Montgomery, Alabama. As she prepares to dance the lead in a recital she gives us what may be the most succinct insight into her psyche
I was a princess, for right now anyway—and right now was all I ever cared about.
It is this headstrong, live-for-the-moment girl who meets and falls in love with the equally headstrong Scott Fitzgerald. Despite any number of black marks against him (not a Southerner, no real job) he captures Zelda’s heart with his ardor and creative mind and within two years they are married and living in a hotel in New York City celebrating the publication of Fitzgerald’s first book. Fitzgerald is a master at being what the press wants him to be, so dashing, charismatic, the life of every party, any party, is the persona he adopts.
As Zelda is more than willing to be his muse they embark on the life found in Fitzgerald’s work: grand hotels, dining out, bobbed hair, champagne, fountain jumping, risqué fashion, clubs and bars, staying out until dawn, and moving from one party to the next. For a couple madly in love, in their early twenties, this lifestyle can be maintained but without some kind of balance it spins out of control. Which it does.
The tale of Scott and Zelda is a black hole of codependency, the perfect illustration of what happens when two stars collapse. Each had enormous talent and a zest for life but the energy they expended in that life was spent following childish whims and behavior. After the birth of their daughter, Scottie, we see attempts by Scott to assert himself as a patriarch but these largely manifest as taking control and trying to curtail Zelda’s growing interest in her own capabilities. In an attempt to explore her creativity she returns to ballet and starts painting.
I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it. He wanted to control everything, to have it all turn out the way he’d once envisioned it would, the way he’d seen it when he’d first gone off to New York City and was going to find good work and send for me. He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse. He wanted to recapture a past that had never existed in the first place.
The second half of the novel is the hardest because we see Zelda struggling to find herself and maintain her family but unable to do so. It is particularly painful as we will never know how far her talent could have gone. Between her love for Scott and her own battle with alcohol and mental illness her gifts were hampered to the point of being extinguished.
It wasn’t wise to let him excuse his bad behavior with apologies and declarations of best intentions and helpless love. I knew that every time he got away with it, there was an increasing chance he’d behave badly again. I knew it, and yet I went along, as helpless to resist a bad choice as he was.
By the end of his life, thanks in large part to people like Ernest Hemingway, Scott resoundingly blamed Zelda for destroying his talent. At the same, Zelda firmly believed Scott was destroying not only her talent but her very ability to be. Fowler does a remarkable job bringing Zelda to life by portraying her with all her flaws but also with her indomitable spirit and her often prescient understanding of where she and Scott were headed. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is heartbreaking in its rendition of a woman who lived life in a gilded cage, always trying to be more.
If I could fit myself into this mail slot, here, I’d follow my letter all the way to Hollywood, all the way to Scott, right up to the door of our next future. We have always had a next one, after all, and there’s no good reason we shouldn’t start this one now. If only people could travel as easily as words. Wouldn’t that be something? If only we could be so easily revised.