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The author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda led lives as fabulous as any fiction. They were the golden couple of the Jazz Age, beautiful, talented and doomed, and to “novelise” their story was a shrewd idea, particularly as the release of Therese Anne Fowler’s book Z: A Novel Of Zelda Fitzgerald (Hachette) is timed to coincide with movie director Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the classic The Great Gatsby.
Still re-imagining the first American flapper’s tumultuous life with the great American novelist can’t have been easy. There is so much information about the pair – letters, biographies, scholarly works – and so many polarised views. Moreover the question has always remained, who was it that ruined who? In an author’s note Fowler admits to feeling as if she’d been dropped into a raging argument between Team Zelda and Team Scott. Somehow she has worked her way through it and produced a thoughtful and emotionally charged story from all the many facts and myths.
The novel looks at what it was like to be Zelda, the wife of a literary darling. It takes us from the summer of 1918 when the teenaged Zelda Sayre was a privileged and spirited Southern belle breaking hearts in Alabama. At a country club dance she meets Scott, a handsome army officer with a novel already being considered by a big publishing house. They fall in love despite her family’s disapproval of his profession and their prescient fears the pair will wear each other out.
Marriage takes Zelda to New York and introduces her to the joys of moving in literary circles. Despite Prohibition the couple drink alcohol furiously. Throughout the highs and lows of their peripatetic lives, from America to the French Riviera, their time together is an endless party…right up until it isn’t.
Fowler paints Zelda as misrepresented, a victim of her era rather than mad or bad, with her own creativity and ambitions always coming second place to those of her celebrated husband. The author is clearly on Team Zelda and her feminist sensibilities are evident throughout. I suspect she is guilty of simplifying a famously complicated woman but then the whole point of fictionalising a real person is to fill in the gaps between the facts with colour and Fowler’s view of one of the literary world’s most romantically tragic figures is as legitimate as anyone’s.
Those who side with Team Scott may not agree with me. His fragile ego, his selfishness, his drinking, his excessive spending, all are held to blame for Zelda’s downfall. Perhaps as a result of this one-sidedness whatever it was inside her that broke and led to severe mental illness, never feels fully explored to me.
That flaw aside Z is a mesmerising piece of fiction that brings to life an era and the set of people that defined it. Faithfully researched, written with brio and style, it is a must-read for Fitzgerald obsessives – there are plenty out there – but should also captivate readers coming new to the legend.