“Are you a dancer? Are you a writer? Are you a painter, a mother, a wife?”
I’d had a bit of a difficult slog through Valente’s Deathless and with some real life stress reaching a peak I grabbed a more comforting 20th century tale, the story of the right hand woman of F Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda. It was the literary equivalent of having candy and gin for dinner. Indulgent and so, so good for the soul.
The problem with reading a novel about Zelda Fitzgerald is you immediately feel you should tidy your hair and apply lipstick. The joie de vivre in this novel, the spirit of optimism at the close of what was then just The Great War, is palpable. Zelda and Scott are young and have their sights set on a brand new way of life, much to the chagrin of their elders. From wild prohibition era jazz nights, to drunken antics through the streets of New York City, while Scott is on his way up life is fast, hair is bobbed, dresses are scandalous and the inspiration flows onto the page. A decade later however, the bad habits start to take their toll.
This is fiction, very well researched fiction, not a biography. Still, it was heartbreaking and wonderful to see Zelda’s frustration as the not yet Great Novelist wrestles with his alcoholism and pride to produce The Great Gatsby, to both critical and sales disappointment. But this is a novel about Zelda and Zelda is a woman with seriously modern ideas. She wrestles with her egotistic husband, she strives to achieve something on her own and becomes despondent when her essays and stories are published under Scott’s name – because they would pay better that way. She becomes mentally ill, hospitalised and re-educated, and seemingly never quite regains her stability.
All that summer we bloodied our knuckles, Scott and I did, neither of us giving an inch. I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it. He wanted to control everything, to have it all turn out the way he’d once envisioned it would, the way he’d seen it when he’d first gone off to New York City and was going to find good work and send for me. He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse. He wanted to recapture a past that had never existed in the first place. He’d spent his life building what he’d seen as an impressive tower of stone and brick, and woken up to find it was only a little house of cards, sent tumbling now by the wind.
This is a wonderful novel, beautifully written and very feminist in nature. Zelda tries her hand at writing, painting and ballet, with mixed results and a 21st century reader can’t help but think how successful she could have been if left to pursue her own ambitions. Zelda Fitzgerald could have been anything. She could have been everything. As could many, many women and girls denied the opportunity. I really loved this one, for a light read it had far more depth than I expected, and when I finished it I wanted to turn around and start it again.
Z: A novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler: Four stars.
Read it when: you too want to have candy and gin for dinner. Formal dress optional.