Saturday, June 1, 2013

"Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald," by Therese Anne Fowler

Reading novels based on the lives of writers is always dicey. Because we bring so much knowledge (or “knowledge,” perhaps myths and rumors) to the reading of these books, we can be both intrigued and disturbed by portrayals that don’t fit with our preconceptions. In the case of “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” (St. Martin’s, 2013), by Therese Anne Fowler, the focus is on the wife of the famous novelist, as was the case with the novel “The Paris Wife” (see my post of 7/1/11), which was about one of Ernest Hemingway’s wives. But Zelda was much more than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife: she was a gifted writer, painter, and dancer herself. In fact, according to the novel (and other sources), she actually wrote, or co-wrote, many of his short stories; it was considered that they would sell better under Scott’s name. As many readers know, this was a couple that had a great love, and great talent, but also was eventually destroyed by alcohol and mental illness. Another factor that this novel highlights is the gender aspect: Scott wanted Zelda to be a more traditional wife, and he felt threatened by her own talents and the time she spent on writing, painting, dancing; he was also very jealous of time she spent with other men. In addition, there are -- at least as portrayed in this novel -- at least two instances of his physical violence against her. The novelist also makes it clear that Zelda’s mental illness was probably misunderstood and mistreated; she also suggests that sometimes Scott found it convenient to leave her in institutions, “for her own good,” for long stretches of time. This is fiction, so we will never know how much of it is “true.” The author, in a “note” at the end of the novel, states that “I have tried to adhere as much as possible to the established particulars of those people’s lives” but also says that “It’s impossible to find universal agreement, however, about many of those particulars.” In any case, she has written a compelling, even fascinating, novel about this real-life, but larger-than-life, character, Zelda Fitzgerald. I came away from it feeling I understood Zelda better, and feeling sorry for her. And despite all Scott’s shortcomings (and there were many, many of those), at times he is a sympathetic character as well. His legacy is the wonderful novels and stories he left behind. We will never know if Zelda, if she had been male, would have been able to write and publish, and be given recognition for, great stories and novels as well.

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