Therese Anne Fowler couldn’t have picked a more opportune time to publish her fourth novel. With The Great Gatsby fresh in cinemas, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his ‘mad’, destructive wife Zelda are everywhere, so Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is bound to be widely read.
From the start, when feisty 17-year-old Zelda Sayre meets Fitzgerald at a party in her native Alabama, in 1918, Z is an enjoyable read. It’s frothy and decadent, fitting both with the stereotypical image of the jazz age and with the personality of Fowler’s Zelda.
Z takes us from Alabama and back again via New York, California, Minnesota, Paris, the French Riviera and Italy, following Zelda and Scott’s fortunes until Scott’s death in 1940.
When they get married in April 1920 his star is on the rise, following the publication of his first novel This Side of Paradise. Zelda is understandably awestruck by her shiny, wealthy new life, and the two of them party like it’s going out of fashion.
Over the next two decades the Fitzgeralds have a daughter, acquire more money and more fame, deal with Scott’s successes and rejections, move around a lot and drink a lot more.
They hang out with Ernest Hemingway (who was close friends with Scott but had an antagonistic relationship with Zelda – Fowler paints him as a proper bastard), Picasso, Dorothy Parker and Cole Porter. Their relationship is fraught for long periods; Zelda is bored and has an affair, Scott is miserable and probably has affairs, and they fight, and embarrass each other, and love each other passionately.
Readers familiar with the couple’s story will know how their story ends (if you’re not one of them, don’t read the next two paragraphs!). Fowler’s writing is light and warm, but doesn’t quite have the gravitas needed for a downfall as inevitable and tragic as the Fitzgeralds’.
We know that it’s all going to go wrong – not because of an inexorable slide that we watch from between our fingers, but because Fowler has Zelda say portentous things like: “There was no way to know that certainty would one day become a luxury, too.”
Zelda almost makes it as a professional ballerina; she has stories published, but under Scott’s name; she develops horrible eczema alongside her schizophrenia diagnosis. Scott is a bit of a shit. Fowler’s Zelda is a carefully drawn, sympathetic victim of her own failing mental health and her controlling, famous husband.
However. While reading Z, you might want to be aware that Fowler plays fast and loose with facts. She writes at the back of the book that her primary concern is with capturing Zelda Fitzgerald’s emotional journey, but her occasional disregard for names and dates is unnecessarily sloppy.
Fowler’s Zelda is a carefully drawn, sympathetic victim of her own failing mental health and her controlling, famous husband.She also, ironically, fails in a lot of respects to do Zelda justice. The real Zelda was a lot more interesting, nuanced and wild than the one Fowler writes. In the book, Zelda is reluctant to get naked in public – not so in real life.
Fowler’s Zelda urges Scott to drink less, and is admirably maternal – the real Zelda was a happy lush who didn’t pay that much attention to her daughter. Zelda’s own writing was lovely – Fowler makes her irritatingly banal at times, anachronistic at others. Zelda’s mental illness, which dogged her for the last decade of her marriage, only takes up a few pages.
In the Zelda vs. Scott debate Fowler has clearly come down hard on the side of Team Zelda, but in doing so she has ignored all the contemporary letters and other evidence pointing to how much Zelda and Scott genuinely loved each other.
The correspondence she has used is made up, to fit with the characters she has created – perhaps she couldn’t get copyright for the real ones, but it’s also likely that Zelda’s actual words didn’t fit with the woman Fowler wanted us to have.
Z is an accessible, entertaining read with a good period flavour. Rather than being ‘a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald’, though, it’s a novel about some of Zelda Fitzgerald.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald was published in hardback by St Martin’s Press on 26th March, and is available from Amazon, Foyles and plenty of indie book shops. An e-book version is also available, priced at £8.99.
Recommended for: People with an interest in the Fitzgeralds, early 20th-century American literature or the jazz age.
Other recommended reading: The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, which is about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and features the Fitzgeralds.