Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is a good companion piece that fits with the spirit of this summer’s resurgence of The Great Gatsby, thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s modern/hip hop film revival. Since the roaring 20’s, people have been fascinated by F. Scott and his wife Zelda, and this novel is a satisfying glimpse into their lives, told from Zelda’s perspective.
First time novelist Therese Anne Fowler follows in the same vein as the popular novels Loving Frank and The Paris Wife, both historic fiction told from the voices of Frank Lloyd Wright’s lover and Hemingway’s first wife, respectively. These novels all take on the voice of women who have relationships with famous men, and tell their stories, which are often less known, but not necessarily less interesting.
We meet Zelda when she is a sassy 17 year old in the Deep South of Mississippi, where her father is a judge and she is the petulant “most popular” girl in town. She meets F. Scott at a dance when he is in town as an officer in the military during WWI. Zelda is used to manipulating all the young men, but F. Scott is different and she is taken aback by this young officer who is not exactly a good match for her because he lacks the familial/social pedigree that she has. Their courtship is not easy, and she won’t follow him to New York until his prospects are looking better, which he is determined to make happen, and does with the publishing of many short stories and then his first novel. They marry when Zelda is still a teenager.
Zelda might have been destined to be a socialite in the south, raising babies and attending gatherings, but by marrying Scott (against her family’s wishes), her world expanded to the arts scene of New York, which included keeping up with the climbing writers, painters, publishers and actors. Life is a constant party at first, but that lifestyle, coupled with the pressures of producing brilliance, can wear on a couple. This novel does a great job of delving into this famous marriage, and it is very apparent that Fowler has done extensive research. The novel takes us from the American South, to New York and the East Coast, to Europe where the couple becomes expatriates, and back to the United States—all places are described with authentic detail and it is clear how setting is important to their lives.
Zelda has often been portrayed as just “crazy” in the past, but this novel attempts (and succeeds) to paint the portrait of a woman who sees how a man has opportunities to pursue artistic and career passions, and she wanted a taste of that herself. Zelda was a talented ballet dancer, a painter who showed her work, and she became a writer in her own right, a talent that grew with advising Scott and then moved on from there. If we believe Fowler’s take on their lives, some of F. Scott’s writings could’ve been written partly if not completely by Zelda.
But Zelda was a woman who had to live within the constraints of her time, and that included deferring often to her husband as to where they’d live, with whom they would socialize and how they would raise their only child, Frances (named after her father, and nicknamed Scottie). By trying to carve her own place within Scott’s life, she opened herself up to being labeled as “crazy” because she dared speak her mind. Certainly, Zelda Sayre came from a family that did have a history of mental illness (her brother committed suicide), but the drinking and pressure of life with F. Scott pushed it along where a more quiet lifestyle may not have. The novel captures the desperation of this brilliant and fabulous people who just did not always have fabulous thoughts on the inside—tortured souls, both.
As to their social lives, fans of writers will appreciate the dropping of famous names such as Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, real-life friends of F. Scotts. Hemingway used F. Scott as a mentor (and F. Scott relished in the role), and the novel takes the reader down the slippery slope of their friendship, which shifts when Hemingway becomes more successful. Both men lived hard, and Hemingway did not like Zelda, which Zelda observes and is in a unique position to understand why.
One of the most compelling features in the novel is that it is no secret that F. Scott used the prototype of Zelda for many of his characters (Daisy being the most famous). Z lets Zelda have a say in how she felt about that, among many other aspects of their lives. Zelda had to often serve as an actress, because when people met her, they expected the women from the pages, and not the girl from Mississippi. The constant play acting of this couple—being the toast of the 20’s, was wearing on then both. This novel gives the reader an opportunity to get into their heads, especially Zelda’s, and gives a deeper understanding of them both. I read this novel at the same time as I read The Great Gatsby, and the juxtaposition was a fascinating exercise. Read them both this summer (the movie? Wait for the DVD).