Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s whirlwind life is legendary. She was the It Girl of the 1920s; he was the brilliant writer¹ who burst onto the literary scene with This Side of Paradise and later produced The Great Gatsby. In Therese Anne Fowler’s fictionalized account, however, readers meet Zelda Sayre when she’s seventeen and still living at home with her parents in Montgomery, Alabama.
She meets Scott at a local dance. He’s an army lieutenant with grand literary aspirations. Zelda is taken with him, but her pragmatic father is unimpressed. The two fall in love, and after a long-distance courtship, Scott sells his first novel — a sign that he can provide a living for a wife as an author — and Zelda is off to New York to marry him in St. Peter’s Cathedral. The rest is history: he’s a best-selling and in-demand author, and Zelda plays her role as a fashionable scenester with gusto. Hollywood comes calling, and the two are ready to take on the world.
They bite off more than they can chew, living way beyond their means once the royalties from Scott’s first book start to dry up. Scott is under pressure to produce his next novel and he’s frozen with writer’s block. He tries to sell short stories, and though that does bring in some income, it’s not enough to keep them afloat. He needs a new novel.
This begins a new pattern for them; they leave New York and go off somewhere quiet so that Scott can write. Success comes and they go to where the action is, and they move again when they have to get away from it all. In Paris, they fall in with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway’s crowd², which comes with its own set of problems.
A lot of this is what people already know of the couple. Z is a little slow at first, but what ultimately makes it so captivating is how Fowler hones in on Zelda’s inner workings; the book is told in Zelda’s voice. I ended up empathizing with her in so many ways. The flip side of Scott’s fame and congeniality is that he’s an alcoholic who at times passes off her writing as his own. He needs to be the center of attention all the time, and a big part of that destroys her. Her wants and desires, her talents all come second to his even though she’s an artist in her own right. Zelda suffered from manic depression and had several nervous breakdowns in her life, but reading her unraveling in her own voice is pretty devastating, especially since, at least some of the time, it seems like she just needed some empathy and actual emotional support. It’s a haunting book that I couldn’t stop thinking about for weeks (and carried over as a grudge when I later picked up a Hemingway novel).
The book has been adapted into a series starring Christina Ricci that recently debuted on Amazon Prime.³ The series will draw you in, but Season 1 doesn’t even begin to broach all of the “good” stuff. If you have seen (or are thinking of seeing) the series but haven’t yet read the book, I highly recommend picking up a copy because the book has an added depth and reflection of inner turmoil that the television medium just cannot offer.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald in 2013 by St. Martin’s Press. I listened to the audiobook version.