When one thinks of Zelda, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the mind tends to go to images of wild jazz parties and a woman who took impromptu dips in public fountains for the fun of it --- the ultimate flapper and symbol of the Jazz Age. But in her informative and enthralling new novel, Z, Therese Anne Fowler shows us a more complicated portrait of the muse to one of the century’s most well-known writers. Here is a woman bursting with creativity and life, but who would find herself thwarted --- by society, by the times, even by her own husband.
One of the best known literary love affairs of the early 20th century began at a cotillion at the Montgomery Country Club in 1918, when Zelda Sayre was just a lively young girl of 17, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was a 21-year-old self-assured Army officer with an incredible drive to be a wealthy, successful writer before his 30th birthday. This last attribute is the one that most impressed this rebel southern belle: “When I first met Scott, the first thing I knew about him, beyond his physical appearance, was that he was an Army officer. Then I learned that he was a Yankee, and a writer. Initially, the first two matters seemed capable of sinking us. The third one, his being a writer, was the one I put all my faith in, as he’d done, too --- and yet that third matter was the solid center of our crumbling world, not its beating heart but a cannonball.” After a tempestuous courtship, the pair wed in New York City and began their married life.
Scott and his young bride threw themselves head first into the glittering world of the New York City literati. Scott was determined to make it big before his looming deadline of 30, and this became his driving force: “All my school friends with their millionaire fathers, their houses, their trips abroad, their society galas…why couldn’t I have been born one of them? …I wanted a place at their tables. My writing was supposed to get me there…. In America, you can invent your way to the top of any field. And when you do --- well, you’re in….and that, my dear girl, is the end of a dream.” This burning desire also led the couple to live well beyond their means. But much like the characters in his novels, neither seemed to have a care in the world. Everything lay ahead of them.
"What Fowler so masterfully achieves in Z is a thoughtful portrait of a complicated woman who might not have been as 'crazy' as we all had been led to believe, but one who was constantly disregarded by a jealous and narcissistic husband."
With Zelda at his side as his wife and inspiration, Scott seemed unstoppable. Although his wife didn’t have the benefit of a Princeton education like he did, she was remarkably well-read and maintained creative ambitions of her own. She would write a short story here and there and was surprised when she would see it published. But with her husband sharing her byline, which he would explain to his young wife that no one would be interested in her unless he was mentioned in the same breath. Despite these petty put-downs, Zelda threw herself into her new life with great ardor and anticipation. There were always parties, speakeasies, endlessly flowing liquor (despite this being during Prohibition), interesting conversation, and even more fascinating characters: “…that influential little group was still a bunch of young, ambitious, intelligent men, along with me, a very young woman who hadn’t known there would be this kind of carnival and wasn’t sure she even wanted to ride the Ferris wheel --- but was game enough to give it a try.”
And game she was. Despite somewhat limited funds, the Fitzgeralds lived every day as if it was their last. The frequent sojourns abroad, extensive travels and parties with friends seemed neverending. What appeared to be happening less and less was Scott accomplishing any writing. The more he drank, the less he worked. Even the birth of their only child, a daughter named Scottie (her father’s suggestion), was not impetus enough to quell their peripatetic ways, nor did it light a fire under Scott to work harder at his writing. Instead, he would obsess over each presumed failure when a work didn’t perform as well as his first, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. Zelda became quite used to her husband’s moods: “This was Scott. This is Scott, always looking back to try to figure out how to go forward, where happiness and prosperity must surely await.”
But when they settled in France, Scott met his latest literary friend --- and his staunchest competition. Ernest Hemingway could match Scott drink for drink and still write more than the whole Bloomsbury group put together, a fact that Scott both admired and was frustrated by. Nonetheless, a literary “bromance” flourished, much to Zelda’s chagrin. Hemingway made it clear that he was a writer first; he was a man’s man and a sportsman, and no woman was to interfere with or distract him from his work, which he frequently accused Zelda of doing to Scott. He lectured her about how Scott needed to get serious about his chosen profession, how the “writer’s life is a difficult one. He should accept this and embrace if fully. No greatness is possible without failure and sacrifice.” Zelda agreed, but Scott had to be the one to do the work. She supported him the best she could, but soon noticed something. Whereas in the past, Scott had asked her to be his first reader and editor, and to offer her notes and suggestions, he was now sharing his work with Hemingway almost exclusively, leaving her out of most decisions. She had been replaced in her own husband’s life by larger-than-life Hemingway.
The pressure of the constant moves, her husband’s drinking and financial excesses, and her own creativity being quashed all began to take a toll on Zelda’s health. She suffered from bouts of exhaustion and was often hospitalized and treated as a brittle flower by her husband. What Zelda was really feeling was probably closer to what the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s THE YELLOW WALLPAPER endured: a woman driven to madness by an unfeeling husband who cruelly dismisses her, all in the name of “taking care of her.”
What Fowler so masterfully achieves in Z is a thoughtful portrait of a complicated woman who might not have been as “crazy” as we all had been led to believe, but one who was constantly disregarded by a jealous and narcissistic husband. As their troubles escalated, Zelda realized, “It was so much easier to be led, to be pampered and powdered and petted for being an agreeable wife. Easier, I thought, but boring. And not only boring, but plain wrong. Who really believed that men could be trusted to always get things right? …Now, I saw how a woman might sometimes want to steer her own course rather than trail her husband like a favored dog.” But just like the doomed characters in her husband’s best-known work, THE GREAT GATSBY, she and Scott were “…boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fowler has accomplished a rare literary treat --- a book that does what all great art should do: it entertains while subtly changing the way you think and view the world.
There has been a spate of wonderful novels in the past few years, showing the “women behind the great men,” such as Paula McLain’s THE PARIS WIFE and, more recently, THE AVIATOR’S WIFE by Melanie Benjamin. However, Z might be the strongest and most skillful of the lot.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on March 29, 2013