Book Review: “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler
“Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler
This is a difficult book to review. Was it the writing that left me wanting at the end of the novel or, since I listened to this via audio book, was it really the actress’s interpretation of the narrative that irked me? I ultimately decided it was a bit of both and split my review down the middle. For more of my take on audio books, please read An Earful of Books.
I probably also liked the book much more than I should due to the subject matter alone. I adore F. Scott Fitzgerald and the 1920s, so this type of historical novel is right in my wheel-house. Told from his wife Zelda’s point of view, I was even more intrigued to read about the era’s first self-proclaimed flapper. I finished it slightly disappointed. Please don’t get me wrong- this isn’t a bad book by any means. But it could have been so much better, and I do really have to wonder if it was the fact that I read it as an audio book that is really to blame.
First of all, the actress reading as Zelda chooses the most syrupy of Southern accents, and the novel reads like a bad community theatre version of “Gone With the Wind”. But what is worse is the actress’s portrayal of the male characters, especially Scott Fitzgerald. She drops her voice an octave or two and attempts to put on a stern and authoritative “man voice”. The result is unintentionally comical, not to mention distracting, from the overall story and takes away from the depth and poignancy I think Fowler was trying to achieve. I spent most of the first half of the novel trying to decide if it really was the writing that was bad or just the reader.
After a while, I decided the writing isn’t solely to blame for my disappointment. Told in the first person, every time Zelda speaks from her point of view, lost in her own thoughts, the novel is tremendously more interesting. Zelda spent the bulk of her adulthood trying to find her own identity and escape from being just “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Wife and Champion”, a label that seemed to haunt her her entire life despite her efforts to prove herself as an artist and writer in her own right. I felt for her, and the author does a great job of letting Zelda develop naturally and unhurriedly from naive Southern belle to Jazz Age party girl to a woman who wants to define herself, and not just by her husband and who he was. Fowler’s exploration of women’s early forays into freedom and liberation and society’s response is nothing short of fascinating and I enjoyed these portions of the novel much more than anything having to do with the Fitzgeralds as a couple and their tumultuous marriage.
Which brings me to main issue I had with the book. Dialogue is not Fowler’s strong suit and the fact that I was listening to a woman reading in a man’s voice along with a heavy and stereotypical Southern accent just made the novel read like it was written by an amateur. And this is maddening because for a novel about one of America’s most literary figures, the book itself is not very literary. Scott- awful voice or no- tends to speak in platitudes and declaratory statements: “Quite right!” “That’s my girl” “Here, here old chap!” “My god, Zelda!”. Judging by his dialogue, I would never guess this was the same brilliant wordsmith who could turn out a rich and beautifully crafted novel like “The Great Gatsby”. He’s not written in this book with any particular depth and his interactions with Zelda are clunky. These two folks do not read as “real” people, but rather as the author’s idea of who they were.
Fowler is obviously a sympathetic fan of Zelda’s. From my research, Fitzgerald scholars often agree that Zelda- and to a certain degree, Scott- did indeed get an unfair portrayal in the media and from supposed friends, such as Ernest Hemingway, who had his own demons to deal with and was certainly not always a fair judge of character. But I don’t think Scott gets the best portrayal in this novel either. He was an extreme alcoholic and very insecure about his own writing and self-worth, this much is known and true, but Zelda was equally known for her dark moods that often clashed with Scott’s need for validation and caused much discord between the two (often publicly). Zelda’s darkness and periods of manic depression are largely missing from this book until the last third of the book when she was diagnosed as a Schizophrenic (modern doctors, however, say she was more likely bipolar). The author foreshadows very early on in the book that the Sayre family (Zelda’s maiden name) had a history with depression, but it never comes up again until it absolutely needs to be introduced when we reach the point in history where Zelda was hospitalized. This lack of attention to Zelda’s recurring depression for much of her life that obviously affected her marriage makes Scott come off as a complete jerk who was solely responsible for the demise of their marriage.
But aside from the unevenness of the writing and the audio issues, I did particularly enjoy the story. I instantly felt a part of the Jazz Age world and loved the portions of the book where Fowler describes the literary elite of the era. Zelda Fitzgerald is an interesting woman. I would really like to read more about her, not to mention reread most of Scott’s books, since Zelda was a huge influence on his stories. I’m not sure this author is the best authority on Zelda’s life, but I would recommend the book to anyone who is a fan of Fitzgerald’s work and the 1920s.