I confess coming to Therese Anne Fowler’s Z with bias. Novels fictionalizing real women are a growing market niche.
The Paris Wife sees poor Hadley Hemingway turned into a fictional heroine. Sylvia Plath has been through every media form imaginable, making it increasingly difficult to separate the real woman from the collectively imagined Goddess. I could include Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates’s fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe, but Oates gets the genius pass.
It’s difficult, however, not to suspect unknown authors of lighting on famous women for their marketability. This is partly due to literature’s dire financial state, making publishers unwilling and/or unable to risk promoting lesser-known writers, leaving writers like Therese Anne Fowler, author of three previous novels, penning fictionalized versions of charismatic historical figures like Zelda Fitzgerald.
The publicity material accompanying Z claims Fowler was “compelled” to write the novel after learning Zelda Fitzgerald and her mother both died on March 10th (of differing years). We are then told “When Z first sold to a publisher in London on April 10th, the same date as The Great Gatsby, she had to think it was fate.”
Remarks like this are worse than ridiculous; they are an insult to both writer and reader. Coincidental dates abound; Lisa Marie Presley and I share an identical birthdate, which, by unfortunate coincidence, 31 years later, became the date my spouse landed permanently in a wheelchair. It was neither fateful nor compelling: it was simply rotten luck.
One could argue that novels utilizing real characters also suffer a certain lack of imagination. Whatever happened to inventing your own damned character? Perhaps we are back in the hands of a troubled business. A novel about Zelda Fitzgerald will surely sell more than one about an invented flapper in an invented marriage. Don’t blame Therese Anne Fowler. Blame St. Martin’s Press, joyfully informing us that Z’s publication conveniently dovetails with Baz Luhrmann’s “Summer 2013 blockbuster movie: The Great Gatsby”.
Yes, I am biased, but biases are made to be challenged, and mine was. Marketing aside, Z happily surprised me by being a good book. Fowler did her homework on the Fitzgeralds, and while she certainly took liberties, she never claims Z is factual.
This is a critical caveat for those readers new to Zelda Fitzgerald, so hear me again: Z is not a biography. It’s a terrific book, worth your dime and your time. But to truly learn about the Fitzgeralds—also worth your dime and your time—read Nancy Mitford’s excellent biography, Zelda. Read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. If you haven’t read it since high school, re-read it.
Read Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz. Scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli’s works on the Fitzgeralds are excellent. And although Ernest Hemingway hated Zelda, he writes movingly if controversially about both Fitzgeralds in A Moveable Feast.
Z opens on 21 December 1940. After two unsettled decades, Zelda Fitzgerald is back home in Montgomery, Alabama. Scott is in Hollywood, trying to rekindle his writing career, earning money penning movie scripts. The couple have not shared a residence in years. After six years in and out of mental hospitals, Zelda is sane and sober. She wrote Scott, asking to join him in California.
Her letter never reached him. On 22 December, F. Scott Fitzgerald collapsed and died in his home. He was 44 years old. The famed he longed for arrived posthumously.
The next chapter moves backward, to 1918. We are in the Montgomery, Alabama, home of the conventional Judge Sayre and his family, including youngest daughter Zelda, known as Baby. World War I means Montgomery is filled with appealing servicemen. Pretty, irreverent Zelda, weeks away from turning 18, is in her element. She is known for her highjinks, divesting herself of corsets and shoes at every opportunity, never refusing a sip of bathtub gin or a cigarette. Her prominent family hopes she will make a good marriage.
Zelda doesn’t care about marriage: she wants to play. She dates, attends dances, and visits girlfriends until the evening she gives a ballet recital at the Montgomery Country Club. A handsome Yankee officer catches her eye: Frances Scott Fitzgerald has a family name, but none of the money that comes with it. Fowler’s adept characterization and snappy dialogue help readers understand how a spoiled Southern beauty could be captivated by a penniless Minnesotan.
The couple has scarcely met before Scott arranges a lavish 18th birthday party for Zelda. Her parents are unimpressed, but Zelda, who has never left Montgomery, is captivated by this worldly 21-year-old. Soon her comfortable world of friends, family, and fun, in a city where the streets carry family names, is small instead of snug. The handsome southern boys courting Zelda are more interested in horse racing than books. Zelda may be fun-loving, but she isn’t stupid. When Scott is shipped out—he never sees European soil—Zelda must decide: security as a pampered southern belle, or a life heretofore undreamed of?
Fowler is especially skilled at personifying Zelda, who rapidly evolves from a naïve teenager to a young woman in love. She is understand dubious: a writing career sounds sophisticated, but she realizes Scott’s happiness hinges on material success. Zelda is not entirely willing to risk a secure future and her family’s disapproval to marry an impoverished, under published writer. And Fowler’s Fitzgerald, though deeply enamored of his Zelda, is already frighteningly alcoholic.
Zelda casts her lot with the artist’s life, moving to New York City, where the couple marries in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Her initial shock at New York’s grandeur rapidly gives way to the glamorous life Scott creates. Zelda is both ornament and participant. The newlyweds stay at the luxurious Biltmore hotel, where Zelda is introduced to Scott’s “Princeton Friends”, a group of men including writer Edmund Wilson. Dressed in the latest, most daring fashions, witty and flirtatious, Zelda is clearly expected to reflect well on her husband. When interviewers conflate Scott and Zelda with Tender Is The Night’s Amory and Rosalind, Scott happily endorses the ruse. Zelda grudgingly accepts that Scott’s fame rests on appeasing a gossip-hungry public.
As Scott’s work brings growing fame, the couple celebrate nightly. New York is the perfect place for the fashionable couple to party, and they do so heavily. Their alcohol-fueled antics make the papers, pleasing Scott. But the next book must written; a move to the country, outfitted in red convertible, is needed. A suitable manse is located, but hiring household help is put off:
”I was in no hurry to hire anyone, not until we’d run out of clean clothes and used up all the dishes and needed to have the pantry stocked again…When the inevitable did arrive, I hired us a Japanese houseboy named Tana, all the regular—that is, female—domestics having already been installed in the homes of women who’d made their summer plans in the wintertime. I have never been able to be organized that way.”
The above is the first glimmering of the domestic upheaval that will ruin the Fitzgeralds. Fowler carefully doles out blame, falling into the camp of Zelda sympathizers. Far from the drunken, insane woman recalled in Hemingway’s acidic memoirs, the Zelda of Z, is victim to both the era’s chauvinism and her husband’s increasing jealousy.
Fowler places money issues squarely in Scott’s court. Obsessed with keeping up appearances, Scott exhorts Zelda to purchase the best of everything. Zelda, concerned about finances, probes Scott and is rebuffed. The couple seesaw between broke and flush. Scott’s profligacy is something Zelda will come to understand, but never control.
When Zelda’s considerable writing talents come to light, she begins writing articles and essays for publication. These initially appear under a dual Fitzgerald byline, which is quickly determined unnecessary. Scott is enraged, jealous of Zelda’s work, belittling her efforts as amateur.
Scott does more than belittle Zelda’s writing. As his alcoholism worsens, he often disgraces himself . He embarrasses Zelda in front of her family, at parties, publicly. When baby Frances is born, he overrides Zelda’s wishes, insisting the girl be named Frances Scott Fitzgerald. When a series of health issues leave Zelda infertile, Scott blames her: he had wanted a son.
By 1922, the couple is riding high on a wave of parties and cash. Their daughter is cared for by a succession of rigid nannies, employed by Scott to give little Scottie the structure Zelda is incapable of providing. The dark side of their lives—alcohol, boredom, unhappiness—is rapidly darkening. The couple travel to France, where Scott’s drinking affects his work, while Zelda’s boredom leads to an affair. The marriage barely survives. Zelda throws herself into artistic pursuits; painting, writing, and later, ballet.
Scott is increasingly portrayed as unsympathetic and unsupportive of his wife’s efforts, insisting she become like other women of the era: household mistress and devoted mothers. When she chides him about his drinking, he accuses her of sabotaging his work. In modern psychospeak, this couple would be dubbed codependent, alcoholic, enabling. The sad truth is they love each other.
Amidst their personal upheavals, the couple mingles with the famous names of the day: Cole Porter, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Pablo Picasso. And, of course, Ernest Hemingway.
The truth about Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway’s mutual antipathy is unknown. Although Hemingway maintained Zelda’s behaviors deliberately stopped Scott from working, Fowler (and many others) suggests an alternative storyline. The men are close friends, a friendship the increasingly unhinged Zelda misinterprets. But the scene between Hemingway and Zelda intended to explain all, while a neat plot device, isn’t quite believable.
Zelda’s slide into physical and mental illness makes for painful reading. Her enormous gifts as a writer, artist, and dancer were quashed by her husband and doctors. When she did write a novel—the autobiographical Save Me the Waltz, reviewers panned it. A show of her artworks did little better. As for dance, it was ruled too unsettling a pastime. A bout of colitis halted her drinking; Scott’s grew heavier.
When Zelda is hospitalized, Scott becomes the model husband, if anything, too much the model husband, writing Zelda’s doctors, plotting a recovery unrelated to the patient or her desires. Zelda receives primitive mental health care, though she does recover enough to return home. She is only 40 years old, but she is a widow who will battle occasional bouts of mental illness the remaining eight years of her life.
During one such flare, she checked herself into the hospital, only to perish when the facility caught fire. Like her spouse, acknowledgement of her talents came posthumously, both in biographical works, reissues of her writings, and novelizations like this one.
In writing Z, Fowler took a risk: she is sure to anger a shrinking group of readers—frankly, readers like me– who remember Zelda Fitzgerald as more than a vague, century-old name. These readers may wrongly call out derivations from the biography or fixate on details. A final reminder that Z is a novel, best read—and enjoyed–in that light. The sole criticism I have is Fowler’s tendency to overwrite, at times in Southern dialect. Here is Zelda, clandestinely meeting Scott in a hotel room:
“…It’s all so momentous. I feel like you and me… we’re this new creature just hatched into the world and there’s nobody like us and we have to figure out every little thing fresh… People’ve been fallin’ in love and doin’ the next natural thing for eons before us.”
Writing like this can quickly drive a reader bonkers, but as Zelda leaves Alabama, she rapidly tones down her accent, which New Yorkers find incomprehensible. This means no more writing in dialect. As for the occasional overwrought sentences, Z compensates by captivating the reader in the best possible way: by telling a good story.