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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Book Review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, narrated by Jenna Lamia (audiobook)

I knew a little about Zelda Fitzgerald I thought but it turns out--not actually much. Back one summer in college, I had a book of short stories written by both F. Scott and Zelda. I don't remember much, but I remember not being able to really tell them apart, which says a lot for her caliber of writing, considering how much less famous she was.

Zelda was a debutante and the daughter of a judge back in Montgomery, Alabama. Towards the end of WWI, she met some young men stationed nearby in the army. Scott was captivated by her immediately, and courted her hard, despite being a Yankee (!), older, and without great career goals. The war ended moments before he was due to be shipped out, and Scott worked feverishly to finish and sell his first novel so he could prove he could support Zelda as a writer. They married, she moved to New York, and they came to define the Flapper lifestyle. They drank, had stylish and famous friends, wore amazing fashions, lived in Europe, got involved in scandals, had amazing fights, and drank some more. Scott's income was never solid so their move to Europe was actually an economic move although it didn't help a whole lot in that arena. In France they met other writers, a couple already famous, some who would be later. Most importantly, Scott became friends with a young upstate named Ernest Hemingway and introduced him to Scott's agent and editor. Hemingway, with his colossal ego and streak of evilness, then went on to undermine Scott's self-esteem, disparage him to their mutual friends, hit on Zelda, and drag him off on expensive misadventures. While Scott's drinking was already taking a heavy toll on his health before Hemingway's appearance, I do wonder how he would have fared in the long run if he'd never met Hemingway at all. I already thought Hemingway was a giant jerk for his behavior toward Fitzgerald before reading this, and I think even more poorly of him now.

Zelda for her part explored a lot of artistic endeavors, with ballet being the one she most excelled at and loved the most. But in the end, even though she was offered a professional position, it didn't work out. She ended up doing some writing, a lot of which was published under Scott's name or theirs together (as his named garnered much more money.) They had a daughter who was along for the crazy ride. But she really was a truly modern woman. She always expected to work if she wanted and to be able to pursue her own interests. Sometimes she and Scott fought about those things but mostly things worked out. They just got by a lot of the time, on credit, advances, and friends' goodwill. Also Scott occasionally worked himself to the bone to get them out of debt. Zelda eventually found things to be too much, and Scott had her committed to an asylum. He was his most productive (in terms of number of stories written, not quality) the year she was away, but that may also have been the result of less socializing meaning less drinking.

Then, as we know, Scott died terribly young. The Depression didn't affect them much as they had no savings to lose, and magazines and Hollywood kept paying during those lean years. But his health was no match for his lifestyle and he died of a heart attack at 44 in 1940. Zelda didn't live a whole lot longer, but she did outlive him, only to die a tragic death herself under terrible circumstances.

I had previously heard unflattering stories about Zelda, that she was crazy, that she held Scott back, but of course none of that is true. She may have not been the most supportive wife, if by that you mean someone who devotes their every waking moment to his care, like Hemingway's first wife (not that it did her any good.) But for a modern woman, she really was, and she was no more crazy than any of us. Who among us wouldn't mind going away to a sanatorium for a few months' rest if we could possibly afford it and manage the time? Ms. Fowler really manages to get inside her head and give us full insight into this complex, creative, and relatable woman. I really enjoyed my time with Zelda and kind of think I should go back and reread some of her stories.

This book is published by St. Martins Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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