Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (St. Martin’s Press; 384 pages; $25.99).
If the Roaring Twenties had an anthem, it was “Ain’t We Got Fun,” a zesty, vibrant, and comical lyric perfect for the times. If the Jazz Age had a signature dance step, it was the Charleston, a provocative and fun dance craze, popularized by carefree flapper girls. And if the 1920s had an It couple, it was F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, literary darlings. Yet, this golden couple had something a song and dance did not–a dark side.
Theirs was an incredible yet tumultuous marriage. “For every biographer or scholar who believes Zelda derailed Scott’s life, there is one who believes Scott ruined Zelda’s. Further, popular culture has elevated certain aspects of the Fitzgeralds’ lives to myth.” There are two schools of thought, then, concerning Scott and Zelda. In her mesmerizing fictional autobiography of Zelda, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler plants herself firmly on Team Zelda and rallies us to do the same.
Z is “not a biography but a novelist’s attempt to imagine what it was like to be Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald,” Fowler writes. Fowler’s story is really one big flashback as forty-year-old Zelda looks back on her chaotic and astonishing life with Scott from the day she first meets him in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1918, to the day he dies on December 21, 1940. Because she is older and wiser, Zelda’s reminiscences run along the lines of “if only I knew then what I know now.” Fowler has clearly mastered the art of using subtle foreshadowing in Z, an elegant technique she employs that only enhances Zelda’s perspective and credibility.
Scott and Zelda’s relationship, Fowler maintains, begins like a fairy tale. They have “something exceptional, something irresistible” to them both. “For good or ill…those feelings” define everything that Zelda’s life is to become. They are everything to each other. With his talent and her beauty, courage, and avant-garde personality, they believe they can do anything and be anyone.
Interestingly, Fowler suggests that both Scott and Zelda are playing parts. “I’m a novelist,” Scott says. “By definition, I live in a world of make-believe.” He also tells Zelda they can “make it all up” as they go. Fowler makes the reader believe that Scott invented a great deal of himself and Zelda. That certainly explains the myths and legends that surround the couple to this day.
Zelda is Scott’s original flapper girl and also his muse. Her eccentricity amuses him, or at least to a point. Scott wants Zelda to be unconventional and reckless in public, yet he wants her to be a traditional wife and mother in private. For someone who supposedly once jumped into a fountain in Union Square, this was difficult. In Z, Scott is controlling, jealous, and manipulative. Everything has to be his way or no way. He never consults Zelda on any decision and constantly belittles her. Fowler’s Scott takes his arrogance and selfishness to a whole new level.
Tilde, Zelda’s sister, worries during her sister’s courtship that Scott and Zelda “would wear each other out.” Tilde’s prediction soon comes true, as Zelda begins to chafe against the bonds of domesticity and motherhood. Zelda wants to be a writer, a dancer, and a painter; Scott wants her to be a wife and mother and nothing else. If Scott could have put Zelda in a gilded cage, he would have. Before long, Scott turns to alcohol; Zelda takes a lover. When Zelda ends up in an institution, she is diagnosed with schizophrenia. This is historical fact. In Z, doctors tell Zelda her “ambition” has unbalanced her. In other words, she wanted too many things and wanted to be too many things. Fowler comes up with an alternative diagnosis: bipolar disorder, which makes a lot of sense.
Fowler uses a great deal of creative license in Z, adding nuances and layers to an already engrossing read. In one instance, she implies Scott’s association with Ernest Hemingway went beyond friendship, which seemed wild at the time but actually has some basis in reality (or could be yet another myth surrounding the Fitzgeralds).
Loosely based on letters the couple traded and those Scott exchanged with friends and colleagues, Z does not portray Scott in the best light and instead makes the reader identify with Zelda. And that is Fowler’s intent. This is Zelda’s story, and we are meant to sympathize and even empathize with her.
Scott and Zelda enjoy a Technicolor life, full of richness and hubbub, which Fowler manages to recreate beautifully and persuasively. Zelda dazzles, and Fowler captures her essence and the ambiance of the Jazz Age perfectly. Z is for fans of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, but it’s ten times better.