Zelda Finds Her Voice

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I wish I could tell everyone who thinks we’re ruined, Look closer…and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we seemed. 

I just finished Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler's compelling novel. I'm sighing deeply, as Zelda's joy and life and struggles are movingly rendered, with clearly much research and attention to fact. Zelda, F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife and America's "first flapper," was so much more than the role pop culture has rendered her: Zelda was an artist, writer, and performer in her own right, overshadowed by both her husband and the expected role of women in the time in which she lived. Scott Fitzgerald published stories Zelda wrote under his own name, and lifted dialogue in his famous novels directly from her diary. Yet, Fowler does a supreme job of being careful not to paint America's most famous 20th-century author as the enemy; rather, his intensely felt insecurities and inability to conquer alcoholism make him a character as easy to empathize with as his much-maligned wife.

Fowler takes us through the best and worst of a love relationship that was as star-crossed and tender as it was destructive, portraying the Fitzgeralds in a way that ultimately elicits compassion. One can only wonder what Zelda might have become had she lived when wives were free to choose their own destinies and mental health and addiction were better understood and treated. Even so, Fowler is careful to write Zelda without regret. And, if Fowler's portrayal is to be believed (and I think it is), Scott Fitzgerald's writing and the significance of the Jazz Age (a term he coined) to modern American culture cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of "the woman behind the man." 

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Be prepared to be moved by the Fitzgeralds' story as Fowler renders it; to have your mind opened to the role of an intelligent, creative, and sensitive woman in not just her husband's fame, but in American cultural history. And even if you couldn't care less about the 1920s, the first truly modern period in American history, (an era with which I've been fascinated forever), you'll be touched by this heartbreaking love story. 

Also be sure to read The Paris Wife, Paula McClain's fictionalization of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway's marriage during the same time period. As Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald were intimate friends and rivals, both novels complement each other. McClain's treatment of the Hemingways is equally affecting. And if you're interested in fleshing out the historic aspect of American women's experience in the 1920s, as a supplement to the personal stories told in these novels, pick up Setting A Course by Dorothy Brown (fascinating and readable) and Flapper (entertaining pop history) by Joshua Zeitz. Both of these offer well-written introductions to the period and are quick reads.

We hardly knew Zelda, who died tragically at age 48. I'd argue that she is as significant a figure as any to come out of the Lost Generation, and Z: A Novel brings her forth from the (sometimes bloated) shadow of her more-famous husband.  Fowler gives Zelda the voice she's lacked, and does so ably, with not only great consideration for the historic record, but with tenderness and feeling.