Brace yourself for the #Gatsbyfactor – it’s about to hit full force. Of course, Therese Anne Fowler’s new book, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, couldn’t be more well timed.
Before the nitty-gritty of Z, I must make mention of a brilliant movie I saw recently, Midnight in Paris – it’s a Woody Allen film (I appreciate that some readers will have tuned out now) and starred Owen Wilson. The cast included Allison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s not a major role but Pill did it beautifully (and was memorable, so fair to say that she nailed it). Here’s a snippet –
So, to the book.
It’s the story of beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre. In 1918, at just seventeen years old, she meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the ‘ungettable’ Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Zelda’s father does not approve of the match but after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Zelda optimistically follows him to New York where they marry. Their story unfolds against the backdrop of the emerging Jazz Age in New York, Paris and the French Riviera.
“Dancing with Scott, me in a gown, he in a tuxedo, on a wide canvas dance floor with torches lighting the night. Champagne, orchestras, canapés, kisses.”
My impression of Zelda Fitzgerald before reading this book was that she was a brat, extravagant, the world’s most famous flapper and a major distraction to Scott. I’m not sure how these impressions were formed – I never studied any of Fitzgerald’s texts at school so had no reason to delve deeper into his or Zelda’s lives.
“Scott would later record in his ledger that the year had been ‘1000 parties and no work’; that summarised it for sure, but it didn’t explain a thing.”
My impression of Zelda after finishing this book is quite different – I had no idea about the extent of Zelda’s own writing, nor that she was a would-be professional ballerina, and nor that she was an accomplished painter. I also never pegged her as someone who was overly maternal – the image of a person who is renowned for diving naked into fountains, dancing on table tops and sporting the latest risqué fashions flies in the face of a woman who wanted to ‘stay in’ and make paper dolls with her daughter.
And this is what I loved most about Z – it has made me want more Zelda. I think I need to read a biography or two and I most certainly need to read Zelda’s semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, which to Scott’s horror, contained detail of their married life. Nevertheless, Scott would go on to do the same, chronicling their failing marriage in Tender Is the Night.
I admire Fowler’s appropriate use of period detail. I hate nothing more than historical name dropping – Fowler avoids this and instead brings colour to the story with a restrained sketch of fringed dresses, bobbed hair, gin rickeys, speakeasies and jazz. Of course there is literal name dropping – difficult to avoid when you’re talking about the Fitzgeralds who moved in the same social circle as Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Dorothy Parker.
There were a few minor down points, predominantly the dialogue. I accept that Zelda, being from Alabama, had a Southern drawl however the use of ‘sortas’,’fellas’ and ‘y’alls’ weren’t consistent. As a consequence, when these kinds of words were used they were jarring.
I was also baffled by the fact that despite having access to letters written by Scott and Zelda, Fowler instead created her own, acknowledging that they are “…inspired by this amazing body of correspondence.”
Ultimately what is revealed is that Scott and Zelda were two fraught people, fast-tracked for disaster. However, contrary to what I understood prior to reading Z, Scott is ultimately the architect of his own misfortune.
“This was Scott. This is Scott, always looking back to try to figure out how to go forward, where happiness and prosperity must surely await.”
“…he got so sick and so drunk that I had to take him to the hospital in New York afterward – the saddest eyes I ever seen except in my mirror. “I’ll never leave you, Zelda,” he said. What saw thought when I saw him being wheeled off was ‘He’s such an extraordinarily brilliant person that it would be terrible if he let himself do nothing in the end.'”
Lastly, I must insist you pay a visit to the website for Therese Anne Fowler and Z – the wallpaper image of Art Deco stained glass (oddly photographed in our Melburnian house!) is AMAZING. I’m book-marking this one under ‘#jealous’.
4/5 I may be guilty of loving anything set in the Jazz Age – it is my weakness – but this book surprised me. Rated against other novels based on the lives of historical figures, this one was tops.
I received my copy of Z from the publisher, St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Z is overflowing with gin, cocktails and champagne but it is the absinthe that plays an early (and memorable) role. Tone down the green glamour of absinthe with a refreshing 6th Street Fizz (which also includes gin – yay).