Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (Review)


Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Therese Anne Fowler, 2013
384 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
August, 2013
She began as an appendage to her famous husband, his muse and his mainstay. Over time she evolved into a creative and productive soul in her own right.

This is the Zelda Fitzgerald we meet in Therese Fowler's mesmerizing fictional biography. Using prior research, diaries, and original letters, Fowler offers a sympathetic version—perhaps overly so—of Zelda's infamous rise and fall. And guess what? It was all Scott's fault.

To reside on this planet is to know the couple's narrative arc. It's the stuff of legend—beginning with youthful romance, marriage, literary acclaim and stardom, fountains and hijinx. It descends into drunkenness, alcoholism, literary decline, and madness; it ends in early death for both.

Might it have turned out differently? Listening to Zelda's voice, it's tempting to think that it might have...had she lived in a later era with a reformed attitude toward women's rights.

Fowler's heroine inhabits a 21st-century sensibility but lives in an early 20th-century culture. It was a culture hostile to female independence. Her parents, her husband, and the doctors who later treated her held to the belief that a woman's role was to support her husband's needs, never her own. Zelda's psychiatrist lectures her on her failed obligations:

And you let him down...no? A wife owes fidelity of all kinds. Her husband, her family, these are the things that must be foremost in her mind, always. When this is not the case, there are breakdowns....[as when] the woman has pulled far away from her domestic circle, that place where the only genuine happiness can be found.

So there it is: Zelda let Scott down...and in doing so brought about her own breakdown. But Zelda tells us otherwise:

I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it. [Scott] wanted to control everything, to have it all turn out the way he'd once envisioned it would.

With Zelda as our narrator, we're privy to events only as she sees them, and so our anger is directed at Scott. We see him as is self-centered, needy, manipulative, and jealous. In this account, Scott resents his wife's talents—which leads in a straight line to Zelda's breakdown.

Yet while Fowler gives voice to an oft-maligned character, presenting Zelda as woman of intelligence, depth, and drive, we need to be cautious with blame. It's hard to assess the true disruptiveness of Zelda's behavior—reported in other accounts—when she's the one with the mic.

Nonetheless, Z is a compulsive read, thoroughly engaging, often insightful, and deliciously gossipy. We travel to Paris and the Riviera, visit cafes and palatial villas. We meet the luminaries of the age—Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson, Picasso, Dorothy Parker, to name a few. And all the while we watch with dread as Scott's and Zelda's lives unravel.

By the novel's end, our overall emotion is sadness—and anger—for lives squandered and talent unrecognized. No matter who is at fault. A terrific follow-up to Paris Wife.

See our Reading Guide for Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

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