The classification of this novel almost defies boundaries. Is it a love story? Absolutely. Is it historical fiction? Without a doubt. Is it autobiographical? Not quite . . . But it could be. Author Therese Anne Fowler gives Zelda Sayer Fitzgerald an authentic voice, one denied her during her very public, most outrageous marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
While their story begins and ends in Montgomery, Alabama, it takes place in the post-war, glitzy Jazz Age at a time when women were seeking independence and suffrage. It takes place in all the venues frequented by the rich, artistic, and famous: New York City, Paris, Marseille, Saint Raphael, Antibes, and Capri where they mingle with the expatriate artistic/literary crowd: Henry Mencken, George Jean Nathan, Dorothy Parker, D. W. Griffith, George Cohan, Ziegfeld, John Dos Passos, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway. Their marriage begins in New York City during prohibition and we follow the Fitzgeralds through speakeasies, elegant private parties, and their expensive suite at the Biltmore Hotel, to be followed by the renting of glamorous homes, grand apartments, and Mediteranean villas in the most exotic and wealthy neighbourhoods. A lifestyle they will only maintain as long as the creative writing juices flow.
Zelda is almost 18, Scott 21, when they meet in Montgomery, Alabama and fall in love. Both exhibit outlandish, free-spirited behaviour despite their conservative backgrounds — her father, the southern judge; his middle class parents from the north — and they are “up” for anything. She likes to go barefoot, show her ankles, challenge authority, and dance the scandalizing “Black Bottom”. He is charming and bold, determined to be a millionaire before he turns 30. She is interested in ballet, drama, painting, and writing; he is interested only in writing. Scott proposes to her and heads off to New York City to establish himself, vowing they will “make it all up as [they] go along”, which indeed they do.
Always in the shadow of her golden, author/husband, Fowler maintains that Zelda has been largely misunderstood and unappreciated by the public, possibly even by her husband. Drawing on the extensive correspondence between these two gifted writers, their letters to family, friends, publisher, agent, and their highly personal published writings (which are in many ways autobiographical or at the very least, reflections of their lives and times), Fowler strips away the rumours and fiction surrounding them and creates the story of Zelda Sayer Fitzgerald in what amounts to a carefully crafted, fictitious autobiography.
The prologue purports to be written the day before Scott’s death, Dec. 20th, 1940. The couple are separated — she at home in Alabama recuperating from her most recent breakdown; he in California trying to finish a novel — but she writes a brief letter full of encouragement, expressing the desire to come out to him for New Year’s Eve. She functions so much better when she’s away from Scott — his control, his demands, his need to be adored and built up. But she still loves him and says that people who think the pair are ruined, think of “Scott’s being washed-up” and her being “about as sharp . . . as a sack of wet mice . . . to look closer and . . . see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we seemed.” And it is this love story that Ms. Fowler unfolds for us.
Despite being swept off her feet, Zelda will not marry Scott until his novel is published. She even rejects him at one point so he will not lose his ambition and drive. After some brief success with short stories, Scott’s novel is published and Zelda sets off with her sister to join him in New York City. They marry in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and begin their honeymoon with a walk down 5th Ave. to see the pyramid of Scott’s first published book, This Side of Paradise, in Scribner’s storefront and honeymoon in their expensive suite at the Biltmore Hotel.
We have heard that art imitates life. The line blurs between the characters Scott creates in his novels and short stories and their own lives. He encourages the belief that the characters in This Side of Paradise are based on Zelda and himself. He tells his friend Alec, “I’m a novelist. . . By definition, I live in a world of make-believe.” To which Zelda adds, “Darling, call me Rosalind.” Scott has written a story called Bernice Bobs Her Hair; Zelda goes out and bobs her hair. Scott and Zelda are constantly in the press, swimming in fountains, riding on top of taxi cabs, and constantly living up to their press.
While Scott thinks of himself as being “on the progress train” and writes about flappers, “these independent, morally modern girls,” in his own world, Zelda is to be a wife and mother, a supporting role in their ever-widening cast of characters. He makes the decisions, he answers interviewers, he chooses the nannies, he decides Zelda will be a movie star, and then as easily, decides she will not. When she first begins writing he is really excited; she is writing about him and he tells her that her work is “quite remarkable — [her] writing voice is almost precisely her spoken voice.” Later, when she writes stories and novels of her own, he is quite critical and either publishes them under his own name, or as joint authorship, or edits them beyond recognition, rendering them almost incompetent. He especially resents it when she is offered a professional position with the San Carlo opera ballet company and when she writes a novel in a month while he is going through a dry spell. According to Fowler, Hemingway also had a negative effect on the couple, publicly criticizing Zelda for distracting Scott from his work when in actuality it was Hemingway keeping Scott out drinking, sometimes for several days at a time. And then Zelda becomes sick.
Fowler drafts an easily believable scenario of the tension that grows between the famous lovers — jealousies, distractions, illnesses, lovers. Zelda first suffers from colitis, requires an operation and continued rest. She has her appendix out. Then she tries to find purpose in her life by working at ballet until she collapses. Scott has her hospitalized and “re-educated” to what her role should be in their marriage. She is diagnosed as schizophrenic (doctors today believe this to be a mistaken diagnosis, that the symptoms are closer to that of bi-polar disorder) and she cannot be released until she acknowledges the error of her ways. She will be in and out of institutions the rest of her life.
Although Fowler has read the letters Zelda wrote, in the novel any letters that appear are fictionalized by the author but are in the style of Zelda and true to her story. Being a work of historical fiction, there are no photos in the book, only the cutaway photo of Zelda on the cover. I’m not sure why the novel stops with Scott’s death; perhaps, because it is their love story, not so much a Camelot as a Gatsby-like tragedy. An afterward tells the rest of Zelda’s tale and a bit of their daughter’s as well. They finally end up buried together in the family plot in Rockville, Maryland in 1972 thanks to Scottie’s efforts against the Catholic church (Scott having been a lapsed Catholic at his death); on their tombstone, Scottie had the last line from Gatsby carved: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.