Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
By Therese Anne Fowler.
St. Martin’s Press. 371 pages. $25.99
Reviewed by Ellen Aiken
ELLEN AIKEN is a licensed professional counselor from Roanoke.
Most marriage counselors will agree that in relationships fraught with controversy, the perception of reality is devilishly complicated — for each partner as well as any impartial observer. Separating fact from myth was an early goal for Therese Anne Fowler while researching one of the most famous literary couples of the 20th century: F. Scott Fitzgerald and his beautiful wife, Zelda.
Fowler was particularly invested in presenting an objective view of the oft-maligned Southern debutante, but discovered conflicting reports at every turn. Rather than a dry recitation of the he-said/she-said/they-said accounts, “Z” offers a highly readable, freshly painted fictional portrait, which the author contends is faithful in spirit if not completely, or consistently, in fact. She leaves readers to judge the merit for themselves.
Fowler covers what is well known to Fitzgerald fans through the eyes of Zelda Sayre, the willful, spirited youngest child of an Alabama judge. Fully cognizant of her beauty and charms, she met the young novelist in 1918 at a country club dance; the attraction was immediate, electric and mutual.
Her parents were skeptical that a writer could support their daughter, and Zelda had reservations of her own. She insisted that Scott demonstrate his ability to earn a respectable living before agreeing to marry him, which she did in New York one week after “This Side of Paradise” was published. It was a best-seller, and the newlyweds were thrust into a post-World War I whirlwind of artistic, social and political upheaval neither was prepared for. They cultivated a lifestyle of lavish indulgence: at nightly parties lasting until all hours, the money, liquor and VIPs mixed freely.
On a fast track to success and notoriety, no publicity stunt was too outrageous for either. There was a competitive edge to their antics; neither wanted to be outperformed, a theme that encompassed their entire relationship. Scott frequently sold short stories to the “slicks” (e.g., The Saturday Evening Post) until he could complete his next novel. Zelda dabbled in art, dance and took her own turn at writing. Even after their only child was born, they moved wherever the beautiful people were, ending up in Paris where they joined an expatriate community including such cutting-edge artists as Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter and perhaps most significantly, Ernest Hemingway.
Though Scott initially took the role of mentor to the younger but worldlier writer, Hemingway soon became successful in his own right and began to question Scott’s loyalty to Zelda, whom he saw as a distraction and liability. Meanwhile, she had her own concerns about her husband’s devotion to a man she regarded as having marginal talent and false bravado.
As the women’s movement gained traction, Zelda sought her own path and voice in the face of conflicting messages regarding the proper role for a modern female. Scott struggled with balancing a desire to write for the popular press and support his family with his overriding need to achieve literary acclaim. When his productivity dipped, the cash flow stopped but the alcohol never did. Conflicts escalated, and though both spiraled downward with the mental strain, Zelda was the first to crack. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia (now generally accepted as an incorrect diagnosis), and she suffered with episodes of mental illness the rest of her life.
Despite the incessant turmoil, “Z” is a surprisingly refreshing book that invites the reader to jump in, hang tight and enjoy the ride knowing full well it will be bumpy and end tragically. The writing is crisp and energetic, with dialogue full of quips and repartee that puts the reader right at the edge of the Fitzgeralds’ sizzling relationship and social scene.
Zelda emerges as mercurial yet likable. Confident, traditionally Southern and remarkably resourceful at times, she is heartbreakingly vulnerable at others, with insecurities and fears most readers can relate to — and forgive. Fowler draws from numerous biographical and scholarly works, but comments in the acknowledgements section that a sizable collection of letters between Zelda, Scott and others was most valuable in fleshing out her characters.
She inserts her own versions of many missives, modeled after the original correspondence and signed simply “Z.”
Though Fowler clearly wants to set the record straight regarding popular culture’s view of Zelda, what the reader is left with is a nonjudgmental portrayal of the relationship. It is as plausible a rendering of two talented but troubled individuals as any analysis of the “facts” might be. Should Fowler tire of writing, she would likely make a good therapist.