A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
My impression of Zelda Fitzgerald is probably like most peoples’, that she was wild, looney and unstable. I have long admired her husband’s writings, but didn’t know much about either of them as people. Curiosity about their personal lives made me want to read this novel, though I know by the very fact that it’s fiction means there was some embellishment or at least guesswork about things.
When I started the book, I wasn’t sure I could go on, as the narrator, who is Zelda herself, was presented as such a flighty young woman that she would’ve given Daisy Buchannan a run for her money. But slowly, she matured or at least began to show greater depth as her attraction for Scott, as Fitzgerald is called, goes through a slightly rocky courtship and becomes a much rockier marriage.
Scott’s days as a struggling writer before finding huge success with This Side of Paradise make up their early relationship and show Zelda as his Muse. When fame and riches hit, they become the party people we are familiar with. But the book speculates that part of their image was cultivated for publicity, their outrageous behavior spurring on sales of Scott’s work and their escapades sometimes gaining more attention than his writing. As I was reading about the joint interviews, the hobnobbing with other famous folk, the constant mention in the press, I realized that they were the Jay Z and Beyonce of their time.
The Fitzgeralds eventually have a baby girl named Scottie, though it’s hard to imagine more unsuitable parents, but thankfully, they had a nanny most of the time. It is then that the author remains true to Zelda’s time period, having her frustrated by the demands of motherhood and feeling left out of their social life. Later, Zelda chafes at the limitations of a woman’s options and expectations within marriage. She studied ballet seriously enough that she was invited to become part of a European dance company, but her husband forbade it, saying that a woman’s role was at home. As a gimmick, a magazine asks Zelda to review one of her husband’s novels and she discovers a penchant for writing herself. But a portion of her articles and books were published under Scott’s name, not only because that would help sales, but also due to a woman not being taken seriously as an author. She had more luck with painting, which she had done since her teens and actually had a gallery show in New York City (some of her paintings survive and are on display at the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Alabama USA).
Because of the frantic lifestyle, the dysfunctional marriage and the alcohol intake, Zelda began having serious health issues, such as colitis(an intestinal disease) and mental instability. The author brought these into the story too suddenly, especially the mental problems and I thought it would’ve been better to show gradual symptoms. The exact nature of her mental illness is still unclear, though is now thought to be a form of bipolar. In any case, it was severe enough to require long stays in the hospital several times through her life and contributed to her death.
The author does a terrific job conveying the sadness and frustration of Zelda’s life. And the portrayal of her relationship with Scott, their codependency and his ever increasing alcoholism leading to the cycle of nasty arguments followed by abject apologies, is so vivid to the reader that it’s painful. There is also a series of incidents offering a possible explanation for the evolving animosity of Hemingway towards Zelda and how that influenced her husband.
Since the story is told by Zelda and ends with the death of Scott, I was thankful that there was an afterwards which told what happened to the main characters, including how Zelda died in a fire at the hospital she was staying at, outliving her husband by only 8 years. Their daughter, Scottie, grew up to become a journalist and playwright.
The cover of the book is flawless; the large exotic letter Z cutting across most of it, with a profile of a flapper and subtle, but period perfect colors. It really sets the mood.
Though this novel will appeal most to people interested in the Fitzgeralds and their writings, it can also be viewed as a feminist work and historical fiction about the first few decades of the twentieth century. Most of all, though, it may be a story of ‘what if?’ And the lost potential of a woman both of her time, yet ahead of it.
On Monday, Simon will talk about the long-delayed joy of Beverley Nichols.
On Wednesday, we’ll have a Vulpes Random – tbd (EXCITING, no?)
On Friday, Hilary feeds her dreams of actually living in an actual bookshop with Jeremy Mercer’s memoir 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs. The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co.'