He shook his head, and ruefully drained his Manhattan. “She’s my Zelda, Tom. She’s my Southern Belle. My Zelda.”
I knew just what he meant.
He was referring to the notoriously tumultuous relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Sayre, the so-called “King and Queen of The Jazz Age.”
Their legend is famous: wild parties, famous friends, a relationship so vibrant it crackled from New York City to the fashionable salons of Europe. Scott was uncontrollably alcoholic; Zelda battled severe mental illness. It’s as legendary as Fitzgerald’s magnum opus “The Great Gatsby.”
But what if the reality were different from that legend?
In “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” author Therese Anne Fowler provides Zelda’s autobiography from that period.
That’s the hard part about reading this book: remembering that it IS, in fact, a novel. The writing and tone are perfect representations of what an autobiography would sound like. Ms. Fowler has researched Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald exhaustively, and that comes through in this book.
I keep calling it “a book,” because it really transcends belief as a novel. Many of the details are real, gleaned from other tomes written about this magical, tragic pair. So much was written about the two, that there is no shortage of source material, and I get the feeling Ms. Fowler has read it all.
But what she fills in are the personal details, the “behind closed doors” realities that other tomes leave behind. We see Zelda playing with the couple’s daughter, Scottie, making paper dolls and learning French together. We are a fly on the wall for horrific arguments and the odd lashing out. We see the nasty splits and the passionate makings-up.
The human villain here—the one who Zelda says led Scott astray—is Ernest Hemingway. The book is filled with references to Hemingway, and his various misbehaviors and cruelties toward both Fitzgeralds. (In his book “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway was less than kind in his portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald, so that part feels believable.)
The way Zelda narrates her life with Scott is equally believable.
For all of the majesty and hell of her ride with Scott, Zelda Fitzgerald—Queen of The Jazz Age—was really just Zelda Sayre, daughter of a Montgomery, Alabama, judge. That’s how she is at the narrative’s beginning and, having come full circle, at the story’s end.
The relationship between Scott and Zelda is truly, legendarily tragic. I’m not a Fitzgerald scholar by any means, but I’ve read about the alcoholism, tempestuousness, and constant money problems.
The couple’s relationship has to be the most storied relationship of that period, a tale of grandeur and human weakness. What Therese Anne Fowler has done in “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” is to flesh out this tale in a conversational style, to give humanity and validity to the salacious legends. Ms. Fowler’s work is an amazing achievement.
It’s just really damned hard to believe that it’s a novel.
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