Z, a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Ann Fowler, manages to feel very real and more like an autobiography than the novelization of Zelda’s life that it is.
I have to address something personal here and say that I never liked F. Scott Fitzgerald. I do think I have read and liked a few of his short stories, but when I read Gatsby once upon a time, I could not appreciate it as the literary masterpiece it is held up as.
With Fowler’s book in my back pocket, I feel like I have a better picture of the Fitzgeralds as the flawed individuals they were and might be able to better appreciate their place in the literary hierarchy as well as their contributions to the Canon of Great American Literature. The fact that Z, a fiction book, has begun to alter long-held perceptions about these two people should speak well of the quality of its narrative.
The story begins with Zelda as a young woman in Montgomery immediately before she meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was stationed near town and would have headed to the Great War had it not ended before he was due to be shipped to France.
In this book, we see the flaws of Scott – his drinking and womanizing and worship of Hemingway -quite clearly through the eyes of Zelda. Sometimes she judges him, sometimes herself, and sometimes the two of them together as the source of their troubles.
When she begins her descent into mental illness, which seemed to be hereditary, the book really shines and provides a much needed indictment of the treatment of mental health issues, especially when women had them, during the time period. With the medical attention available today, this Zelda would have undoubtedly pulled through her dark days and been able to continue with the career F. Scott seemed to step on at every opportunity in an effort to keep his wife from outshining him the way his friend and “protege” Ernest Hemingway eventually did.
Hemingway is really the ultimate bad guy in this book as the Fitzgeralds continually try to find a new common ground together. Ernest is always there with the macho platitudes that keep Scott determined to claim his historical position as head of the household and decider of all things. It was okay to have a woman who was independent about premarital sex or didn’t mind having an abortion for him — having a woman who wanted her own career and spotlight was entirely another.
Therese Anne Fowler shines light on all of this material – most commonly known facts about the Fitzgeralds – as well as a few things you might not know which are heightened by the creation of dialogue and contextual information one can’t obtain. These creations are what makes this a novel, but they are also what makes the history comes alive.
F. Scott and Zelda were each their own worst enemies and together there seemed to be no where to go but up briefly and then down in a spiral. Z manages to take a tale with such a beginning and ending and makes it a “can’t put down” experience. This volume is a must-read for anyone in love with the Roaring Twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Zelda Fitzgerald.
Disclosure: My review is based on an eGalley of this volume.