Picture a late-May morning in 1918, a time when Montgomery wore her prettiest spring dress and finest floral perfume—same as I would wear that evening.
"Thus begins the story of beautiful, reckless, seventeen-year-old Zelda Sayre on the day she meets Lieutenant Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald at a country club dance. Fitzgerald isn’t rich or settled; no one knows his people; and he wants, of all things, to be a writer in New York. No matter how wildly in love they may be, Zelda’s father firmly opposes the match. But when Scott finally sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Zelda defies her parents to board a train to New York and marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Life is a sudden whirl of glamour and excitement: Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his beautiful, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, trades in her provincial finery for daring dresses, and plunges into the endless party that welcomes the darlings of the literary world to New York, then Paris and the French Riviera. It is the Jazz Age, when everything seems new and possible—except that dazzling success does not always last. Surrounded by a thrilling array of magnificent hosts and mercurial geniuses—including Sara and Gerald Murphy, Gertrude Stein, and the great and terrible Ernest Hemingway—Zelda and Scott find the future both grander and stranger than they could have ever imagined."
This novel was so much better than The Paris Wife, in which the portrayal of Hemingway and Hadley seemed kind of untrue and made me uneasy. The writing was much more compelling and absorbing, and it seemed to me that the two Fitzgeralds were portrayed really, really well. I was certainly drawn into the book and was entertained while learning a lot about Zelda's life.
In films like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Zelda is usually portrayed as someone who hurts Fitzgerald's writing ambitions and is reckless. She is reckless, but in Z there is a more sympathetic, comprehensive, and probably true-to-life portrait of who she is. Hemingway hated her, but I really liked reading about her. She just has some mental problems. As Allison at The Book Wheel puts it, "In reality, scholars debate whether Zelda’s medical condition and desire for independence ruined Fitzgerald or that Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and relationship with Ernest Hemingway ruined Zelda." Read her full review here. Z gives time to both opinions of the matter, although I do think that the author is understandably more sympathetic to Zelda, her subject.
Even though a fair amount of disturbing things happen in the book, it was kind of a peaceful read. I didn't feel any need to rush through it because it was suspenseful; I just enjoyed the excellent writing and read about the Fitzgeralds' tumultuous lives. They certainly make a lot of bad choices. The book is also kind of dreamy, just like the set that the Fitzgeralds fall in with, dreamy because they're intoxicated a lot of the time.
That said, this was a comparatively light book to be talking about Zelda's life, which was very dark. I enjoyed the fact that it wasn't too heavy, but it probably would have been even more realistic if it was way more serious. The book also doesn't talk much about Zelda's life before the age of seventeen, when she meets Scott, and after his death. It's really only about her relationship with him.
I think all of the characters were portrayed in a realistic manner, and they weren't cardboard characters. Another reader might have sympathy for Hemingway and Fitzgerald instead of Zelda. The historical element was also really well done; as one reviewer puts it perfectly, "Fowler takes us back in time and lets us hang out with these people and see the challenges and temptations they faced as products of their era. The author has a real flair for dialogue, and a wonderful ability to create a sense of time and place using just the right amount of period detail. If you love historical fiction that never gets boring, you're going to love this novel." That's about right. I really loved the dialogue, and all of the settings seemed just right, especially the South at the very beginning. There's just enough detail that the world comes to life. Really, Scott and Zelda's life was like one of his novels - two characters, both beautiful and damned.
I just loved this novel, more than I was expecting to. I thought it would be at best a 4 star read; it was a 5. Z was rich in detail and full of lush descriptions. It was understated and elegant, and a book that I would highly recommend. Perhaps it doesn't do complete justice to Zelda's flamboyant lifestyle, as The New York Times Book Review suggests. But it certainly comes close. Thanks to St. Martin's for providing me with a review copy of this book.