Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler was published in March 2013 by St. Martin Press. As soon as I heard of the book I knew I needed to read it: I felt Zelda has been historically underestimated and usually labelled as “Fitzgerald’s crazy wife”. But madness is culturally constructed and I knew there was something more to Zelda’s breakdowns and I wanted to see if others thought the same way. Luckily, Fowler did. Thanks to Lisa for sending me a review copy.
When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.
What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time. Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his witty, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, adopts daring new fashions, and revels in this wild new world. Each place they go becomes a playground: New York City, Long Island, Hollywood, Paris, and the French Riviera—where they join the endless party of the glamorous, sometimes doomed Lost Generation that includes Ernest Hemingway, Sara and Gerald Murphy, and Gertrude Stein.
What first called my attention when I heard of the novel via Twitter was the mix between historical facts and traditional fiction. I think there is a certain degree of fiction on every written text, but this one beware the reader beforehand. This is Zelda’s story, highly researched and based on events as reported by her friends, acquaintances and the media. This gave Fowler freedom to give Zelda a unique voice, one that I think very much fitted the woman behind the real-life events. From her teenage years as Southern Belle to her years as iconic flappers – which coincide with her 20s – Zelda experienced a huge change. Her name, her figure, her style, her family, everything changed, but Fowler managed to keep a voice that matured as her story developed, but maintained common elements that made it very easy to follow and sympathize with Zelda.
One of those traits that Fowler kept was Zelda’s creativity. She had been a well-known ballerina in Montgomery, but quit as soon as she married Scott and moved to New York where she did keep dancing, but merely as a pleasure. Actually, it was her dancing – and partying – what made her famous and a feature of the quintessential flapper. It was during this time that Zelda also became an icon and Fowler pays a lot of attention to clothes, make-up and hair making the prose contagious to those of us who love beauty and fashion. This focus on her appearance came partly from Zelda and partly from Scott who accused her Montgomery clothes of being too provincial. It was him who first encouraged Zelda to get a new wardrobe when she arrived to New York and it was also him – according to Fowler and against the well-known narrative that insists she begged for it – who spent 750$ (6,787$ nowadays!) on a fur coat. Image was very important for Scott and he managed to make it also important for Zelda. Does this mean she did not care for her image before? No at all, But Scott was usually harsh on her comments regarding her image which he thought constructed one of his most important narratives. He could not be America’s greatest novelist without a certain image and his wife played a key role on this scheme.
By the end of the novel, the reader has clearly taken sides and thanks to Fowler’s research, it is Zelda’s. The author makes it very clear that there seem to be a team-Zelda vs. team-Scott division in history and I could not agree more. I have always thought Zelda was misunderstood and people usually tried to access her as “Scott’s wife”. Actually, her role as wife to a great novelist was one of her demons. Most people asked themselves: How could she dare to dream beyond her domestic life? How could she dream of writing her own text when her husband was such a writer? Flappers like Zelda represented a break with their own mothers and even though they tried to run from traditional roles, they did not have a model to follow and they were the first generation who dared to question their supposed dreams, ambitions and fates. Zelda wrote and got her short-stories published but usually with her husband as co-author. Finally, when she clearly stated her creative ambitions which clashed with society’s rules and roles for women and as a consequence was deemed unfit, unbalanced, hysterical, dreamy and above all, a failure even before she started her projects. No wonder she suffered a breakdown, a reaction Mr.B&R (psychologist) thinks completely normal taking into account Zelda’s underestimation by everyone. Nowadays psychologists agree she suffered from bipolar disorder – as a result of the polarity between what she thought she could and what society told her she could do-but back then was treated for schizophrenia with brutal methods including electroshock.
So, you can see if I was already Team Zelda before, I am even more now. I am eager to read more about her, but even more to read her autobiographical novel Save Me The Waltz. I cannot but sympathize with Zelda and her need to be creative, establish a routine in which to exercise her creativity and be heard of herself. Even nowadays many women struggle to be heard for what they really are and cannot imagine how cruel society could be back in the 1920’s. I am also very glad that Fowler broke the tradition of Zelda as a crazy wife who interfered with Scott’s writing. He was cruel to her and was the first one to make sure she did not succeed on her creative endeavors and when she did – as when she wrote a novel in a few months when he had been struggling for months with his – he made sure to highlight all the supposed flaws and mistakes.
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was a remarkable woman, a trend-setter but above all, a human being who struggled against society. She was not Scott’s crazy wife. She was not a disturbed woman who set fire to the asylum she was spending time on as it is usually believed. She was creative, passionate and longed for a creative routine that allowed her to express herself.