Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

  • Therese Anne Fowler
  • St. Martin’s Press
  • 384 pp.

The artistic, influential and complicated marriage of the Fitzgeralds, told through Zelda’s eyes.

Therese Anne Fowler will be appearing at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, May 18, 2013.

“It seemed to Alabama that, reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her — that, in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self.” 

In this quote from Zelda Fitzgerald’s novel, Save Me the Waltz, lies Zelda herself as presented in Therese Anne Fowler’s Z — a woman increasingly tormented by her seeming inability to achieve her artistic goals independently of her famous husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

The lives of both Fitzgeralds have been shrouded in the nostalgic mist now associated with the Jazz Age (a phrase coined, as Fowler points out, by F. Scott Fitzgerald himself) and the group of artists, writers and intellectuals that gathered around Scott and Zelda in absinthe-drenched Paris salons. However, it’s safe to assume that F. Scott Fitzgerald was not an easy man to live with — he often drowned his creative doubts in champagne and vodka and ultimately doubted whether he’d succeeded in carving out for himself the place in American letters he’d set out to claim.

We can be less sure of Zelda. Depending on who tells the tale, she held Scott back from greater success during his lifetime or steered him to the ones he did achieve. Fowler doesn’t settle that question conclusively (and perhaps it’s impossible to do so), but she does make the point that Zelda was a talented, ambitious artist in her own right. An accomplished dancer, a promising painter and a daring writer — none of which was enough to step out of Scott’s shadow.

To remedy this, Fowler sets out on an ambitious mission: To tell Zelda’s side of the story throughout the entire Fitzgerald marriage — all 20-odd rushing, confusing, desperate years of it. 

But that very ambition ultimately defeats this attempt to make us understand the complicated woman Zelda Fitzgerald was, and the even more complicated relationship she had with her husband. The Fitzgeralds’ lives were filled to the brim with parties, friends, grand artistic ambitions and larger-than-life feelings. Trying to condense the entirety of that experience into less than 400 pages is a near impossibility.

In the book’s best moments, most of which are clustered early on in the story, its frantic pace puts readers in Zelda’s place — swept off our carefree, teenaged feet by a dashing young officer who promises to show us the world. But as the narrative progresses, we’re increasingly holding on for dear life, trying to keep up with the relentless pace of names and places flashing by us without gaining much definition. Stein, Dos Passos, Paris, New York, Mencken, Antibes, Baltimore.

As a result, we find ourselves grasping for the meaning of the events in Zelda’s life. This becomes most obvious towards the end of the book, when a man dear to Zelda dies. This death is described as a crushing blow, as surely it must have been, but as readers, we’re left unsure what to make of it because we never really got to meet that man and experience what he meant to Zelda. What’s more, with the book near the end of its frenzied race to the finish line, Zelda’s reaction to the news is told in no more than two pages.

The same problem also eventually makes itself felt in Fowler’s portrait of the Fitzgerald marriage. Early on in the book, Fowler takes the time to explore how Scott and Zelda find their footing with each other in the early years of their marriage — how they relish and even cultivate their newfound notoriety as New York’s “It” couple. 

But as the years go by and the book gathers speed, we understand the dynamics of their relationship less and less. To some extent, this is unavoidable. We experience the Fitzgeralds’ marriage falling apart through Zelda’s eyes, meaning Scott’s behavior must of necessity be puzzling sometimes. But throughout the last 100 or so pages of the book, the Fitzgeralds’ encounters have become so brief and disjointed that we’re left confused about what motivates their actions at this point in their relationship.

All this is not to say that Fowler’s intention to tell Zelda’s side of the story isn’t worthy of celebration. When she succeeds, the book is terrific fun. We can’t help but fall in love with the young Zelda, whom Fowler portrays as a strong, independent-minded woman who dares the world to stand in her way. And for anyone truly interested in puzzling out the mystery of Zelda Fitzgerald, these glimpses of her make the book worth reading despite its shortcomings.

And after all, there is a certain poetry in the fact that a book about the Fitzgeralds sets out with grand ambitions, sweeps us up in its giddy wake, but ultimately collapses under its own weight. 

Tina Irgang is a full-time editor for a business-to-business publishing company. When she’s not writing or editing, she reads anything and everything.


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