Say the name Zelda and clearly, the reference is to the legendary wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Theresa Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Zelda tells the story in her own voice – at times, reading like an illicit look into her private diary.
The highs and lows of this Jazz Age marriage have been chronicled in fiction, movies, biographies – some accusing Zelda of destroying her husband’s career, others pointing to Scott as the alcoholic womanizer who drove her insane. Fowler is on Zelda’s side.
Her fictionalized version of this dysfunctional yet brilliant pair includes relationships with a star cast of writers and artists of that era – Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and, of course, Hemingway. Fowler uses the strange love/hate friendship of Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald as a turning point in her novel, and creates an explanation for Hemingway’s intense dislike of Zelda with Zelda’s sexual rejection of Hemingway – plausible but only fictional.
The first half of the book seemed to last forever and I found it hard to concentrate on the Southern Belle drivel, as Zelda grows from a 17-year-old Scarlett to a bobbed flapper, partying in Europe. After Hemingway enters, the pace improves, racing to the inevitable ending. To be fair, my lackadaisical attention may have been due to my dizzying ear infection, the small print on my iPhone – or maybe the disappointing use of language.
The Jazz Age with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda continues to be romanticized – a new movie version of Gatsby with Leo DiCaprio is being released, and the New Yorker recently published a Fitzgerald short story rejected over 75 years ago. Fowler’s rendition highlights Zelda’s accomplishments as a painter, would-be ballerina, and as a writer, who was actually plagiarized by her husband. Although fiction, the story certainly justifies the PBS conclusion that
“As an icon of the Jazz Age, she struggled against her traditional southern upbringing and its societal constraints to create a new, independent identity…”
If you don’t know the story of this famous pair, Z is an easy entry into their lives and worth the read, but lower your expectations if you are expecting Fitzgerald’s prose. Although Fitzgerald never wrote a roman à clef, characters from some of his work – The Beautiful and the Damned; Tender is the Night – reflect his life with Zelda. The New York Times reviewer Penelope Green calls his language “precise and a delight.” Maybe that’s what was missing in Fowler’s interpretation.