Skip to main content

West of Sunset


West of Sunset

“There are no second acts in American lives” writes F. Scott Fitzgerald in notes for his unfinished final novel, THE LAST TYCOON. While literary scholars can debate the meaning of this lament, his reappearance in the contemporary world of literature is an undeniable fact. In 2013, the third version of his iconic novel, THE GREAT GATSBY, appeared on movie screens. The following year, book critic Maureen Corrigan wrote SO WE READ ON: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, discussing how the book published in 1925 to tepid reviews and sales became what many now consider to be one of the greatest American novels. Fitzgerald, who died at age 44, never experienced the accolades that now accompany his book.

"Capturing Fitzgerald’s final days in wonderful detail, WEST OF SUNSET is a haunting story of a great yet flawed novelist whose contribution to American literature remains substantial."

WEST OF SUNSET by Stewart O’Nan is a fictional account of Fitzgerald’s final years of life. It is 1937, three years before his death. His wife, Zelda, is a patient in a sanitarium in Ashville, North Carolina. For more than a decade, her continuing battle with mental health issues has forced her institutionalization. The Fitzgeralds’ young daughter, 16-year-old Scottie, is enrolled in a private school. Between tuition, Zelda’s medical expenses, and his own battle with tuberculosis and alcohol, Fitzgerald is destitute. O’Nan’s opening scenes paint a sad and hopeless portrait of a depressing existence.

Desperate for money, Fitzgerald accepts a six-month contract with MGM and travels to Hollywood to work for the studio as a writer or re-writer for whatever project may be thrown in his lap. His accomplishments in Hollywood were minimal, resulting in one screenwriting credit and work on the aforementioned unfinished book. Be prepared…WEST OF SUNSET is not an uplifting, exuberant novel. In some ways, it is downright depressing. But Fitzgerald’s life probably can yield no other narrative. He died a broken man, achieving recognition only after his death.

There are some exhilarating portions of WEST OF SUNSET. O’Nan’s description of Hollywood in the 1930s is vivid and often entertaining. The cast of characters appearing on these pages include many Hollywood legends of both literature and the screen. Readers meet Samuel Goldwyn, Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Dorothy Parker and Shelia Graham, the Los Angeles gossip columnist who became Fitzgerald’s love interest in Hollywood. Writing a fictional account of a man like Fitzgerald, whose life has been the subject of multiple biographies, can be a daunting task. Interspersed with the Hollywood portions of the novel are his return to North Carolina to visit Zelda and his time with Scottie. These are often poignant and depressing moments when his despair is almost palpable.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a complex man: a talented yet unappreciated writer; a despondent husband devoted to an imperfect wife; and a better father when his daughter was distant than when she was nearby. Capturing Fitzgerald’s final days in wonderful detail, WEST OF SUNSET is a haunting story of a great yet flawed novelist whose contribution to American literature remains substantial.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 16, 2015

West of Sunset
by Stewart O'Nan

  • Publication Date: December 29, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143128248
  • ISBN-13: 9780143128243