Z: A novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
By Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin's Press
Of all the members of the Lost Generation, the one who claimed the biggest piece of hearts of certain readers of a certain age was Zelda Fitzgerald. After Zelda, Nancy Milford's biography was published in 1970, F. Scott Fitzgerald's denounced wife regained sympathy and, for some, admiration for surviving Fitzgerald's alcoholism and decline while she battled mental illness and the inability to care for her daughter, Scottie.
Therese Anne Fowler is one of those readers. And she's taken that restoration of Zelda's image to the next step by imagining her life in a new novel, Z.
The prologue, set in the year before she dies, is one of the strongest sections in the novel. She posts a letter from her hometown of Montgomery, where she has gone after hospital stays, to her husband, who is in Hollywood once again chasing the end of the rainbow, and wishes she could mail herself as well. In it, she wishes to mail herself to Scott and to their "next future", as if they could revise their lives as easily as letters and novels are revised.
Zelda, or at least her life, underwent revisions after she met Scott near the end of WWI in Montgomery. He was dashing, she was swept off her feet, she did not want a conventional, staid life. In that respect, she got her wish. She and one of her sisters took the train to New York City, where she and Scott married, and they began the live the lives of the unconventional. They partied, they drank, they danced. Scott wrote short stories that paid a fortune that they used to party, drink and dance.
Off and on over the years, Zelda wrote as well. But much of her work was either published under both their names or even Scott's.
And while Fitzgerald practically invented the unconventional flapper, he was as staid and conventional as any patriarch in Fowler's novel. He wanted Zelda to worship him, to emotionally support him, to back him whatever he wanted to do, whether it was write, party all night, go meet friends or not put up with resistance when he mentored Ernest Hemingway or starlets, or slept with other people. When Zelda develops a serious crush that she mistakes for love with another man, and plans to run away, Fitzgerald embarrasses her, brings her back and takes her back.
The relationship with Hemingway is fascinating in both reality -- even considering what we don't know and what Papa may not have reliably reported (such as a certain incident that Hemingway relates took place in a restroom and involved Fitzgerald's anatomy) -- and in fiction.
Hemingway's charisma is related in full force in this novel. Zelda's distrust of him is brought in quietly and carefully. She doesn't come across as a shrew or unreliable or mentally unstable. Fowler creates an incident in which the origins of Hemingway's turning against first Zelda, then Scott, could be explained. It's an all-to-human incident in which a man who either thinks a lot of himself or who overcompensates because he doubts himself so greatly (both of which I've thought about Hemingway at times) could initiate. And take revenge for when he doesn't get his way.
Later, it is intimated that Zelda may have evidence that Scott and Hemingway slept together. There is nothing definitive in the historical record, and it is easy to imagine their varying times appearing jealous of the other's acclaim as more than that of fellow writers, but imagination is what it appears to be. In the case of the fictional Zelda, it is easy to imagine her jealousy of losing her husband's attention.
All of this sent me down rabbitholes of Google and unresolved determination as to what may or may not have happened.
And then it hit me: Is that not part of what literary fiction might do? Consider possibilities that fit with human nature? Is this a reasonable way to puzzle through what certain real people or any person might do? Is a novel a reasonable way to think through how a person with certain characteristics might respond to certain situations?
These questions are a breakthrough for me as a reader, because I've long held an animus against real people being featured in fiction. For this alone, I'm grateful to Fowler for her ideas as she's expressed them in Z.
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