Wednesday, April 10, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Z. A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Z. A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is the type of historical novel I truly enjoy. Steeped in the time period (centered around the roaring twenties) with lush details of varied settings (Montgomery, Alabama, New York City, Paris, and various other post-war European cities), its easy to feel the excitement and confusion of Zelda’s whirlwind lifestyle and the inevitable exhaustion.

Zelda Sayre was barely eighteen when she met and fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald, a young army lieutenant stationed in Montgomery. In many ways they were mismatched. He was a Yankee, for one thing. He intended to be a writer, for another. But they were both passionate, young, adventurous, and full of life. He had just shipped overseas when the armistice was declared, "cheating" him of a chance to see any real fighting. He returned to Montgomery to propose to Zelda. Although she accepted him, he had to be able to support her first, so he returned to New York alone to find a job and work on a novel. For a while, it seemed the marriage might not happen.

Fitzgerald’s first novel sold to Scribner’s and Zelda hopped a train to New York to get married–against her parents’ wishes. The wild lives of Scott and Zelda began.

The two were celebrities in their time, known for outrageous behavior, late nights, reckless spending, hard drinking, hopping into public fountains. . .the novel shows it all. It’s part act--publicity stunts to garner attention for Fitzgerald’s writing--and part two young lovers having fun. Fowler does a wonderful job with the psychology of a young woman who is very much in love with her husband but is dealing with his success and insecurities, financial worries, and her own transition to adulthood.

Scott and Zelda escape New York and travel to Europe, eventually ending up in and around Paris where they fall in with the expatriate literary crowd. Some of the story here is familiar territory, having been covered from a different woman’s perspective in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (a book about Hemingway’s first wife that I also enjoyed.) But Zelda is not as content to simply play the role of supportive wife. She has ambition of her own. She’s intelligent and talented, but suffers from a lack of focus. She also suffers from a husband who believes that he should be her only focus. And so, the story becomes one of a marriage in crisis. (Hemingway comes off as awful in this story as he does in The Paris Wife, if not worse.) Yet, despite their difficulties, they remain married.

Another piece of Zelda’s history is her mental illness. Fowler uses what is known about Zelda’s breakdowns and her institutionalizations to create a credible narrative of her mental illness. It avoids assigning blame (as in--did Zelda drag down Fitzgerald’s writing career or did Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and self-centeredness lead to Zelda’s breakdown?) but shows how multiple missteps along the way, years of little misunderstandings, can wear down even the strongest spirit. But, in spite of it all, they remained devoted to each other. Unless that was a fiction too.

This beautiful but heartbreaking story is a Historical Fiction Challenge book (hosted by Historical Tapestry) and a Library Books Reading Challenge book (hosted by Book Dragon’s Lair.)