Book Club Discussion // Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

This is the second book discussion in our collaborative Book Club series with Amp & Abi. This month, we read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. I had no idea what I was getting into when I first picked up this book, but by the second chapter I was jotting down notes and thoughts in my phone. If there had been a highlighter nearby, I probably would have been making yellow swipes all through this book. I think it would be impossible to read this book and then lay it aside with a shrug. It's one of those books that you just have to have an opinion on. So without further ado, here's some of our thoughts on this novel. I'd love to hear what you thought, so please share in the comments below!

Whitney: Confession: I have never read The Great Gatsby or any other work by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I feel a little ashamed admitting that since he is known as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Because of my limited knowledge of Scott and his wife, I picked up Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald not knowing what to expect at all. I certainly didn't think I was going to become as captivated by their tale as I did. I'm curious how my opinions of these two famous characters match up with your own — especially those of you who have read his novels and were acquainted with Scott and Zelda beforehand.

Abi: On the flip side, F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorite authors. Having read all of his novels and many of his short stories, I previously eyed Fowler's novel with trepidation. I didn't want this novel to somehow tarnish my vision of Fitzgerald or his work. Yet, as I held the book in my hand, I had to acknowledge that my education and perception of Fitzgerald may have been a little skewed. I had read only his works and knew very little about Zelda...other than brief blurbs in his biography, something along the lines of "his crazy wife." In fact, I wasn't even aware of her artistic or literary talents. Plus, Fowler's novel is just that: a novel. I had to remind myself that Fitzgerald and Z are characters, not necessarily completely historical representations of the real people. All of this aside...I have to say, this book may have become one of my favorites.

1. Scott and Zelda's love story

Whitney:The novel begins in Montgomery, Alabama where Zelda lives with her family and Scott is stationed in the army. Although there's a war going on, it's a dreamy time — a time of dance cards, young love, and a whole world yet to explore. I was quickly pulled in by Scott and Zelda's love story, because I related to a lot of it myself. They were young and broke and had no idea what the future held in store, but as Zelda said, "We'll make it all up as we go."

As someone who also got married young without an established career, savings account, or any idea of what the future held, I was completely on board with Scott and Zelda's decision to throw traditional opinion to the wind and follow their hearts. They both had such an unabashed excitement and overall giddiness for life. Zelda expressed this so well when she first set foot in New York City and exclaimed, "All the clock works in my head are just spinning and springing apart!"

Abi: Ironically, my interpretation of their relationship was completely different. I found Zelda and Scott's first interactions to be somewhat, well...immature and flighty. My immediate impression of Zelda was spoiled, ostentatious, and overly exuberant, while Scott seemed affected and idealistic. I first thought "Oh great... how am I going to get through an entire novel of these characters?" I couldn't help but doubt that they would ever make it together. How much of this was gleaned from their actions and how much was dredged up from half-remembered literary history...I'm not sure. Over the course of the novel, my skepticism turned to pity. I found myself rooting for them. Like "come on, guys, you can make this work!" To me, it seemed like they loved and lived in the wrong time. They were too much, too intense, too bright and too brilliant for their surroundings. The early 20th century was not a time in which women could really shine intellectually or artistically. Because of this, I think they burned each other out. Instead of holding each other up, they began to compete and resent each other. Yet it does say something about their love that despite the numerous pitfalls, they could still express love to each other.

2. Our opinion of Scott

Whitney: At the beginning, I loved Scott's straightforward way of courting Zelda — as if there were no other option than to make her fall in love with him. After reading more, though, I realized this was the way Scott went about everything. Once he set his mind on something, he wasn't going to change it. While it was endearing when he was courting Zelda, it became less charming later on.

I started to dislike Scott early on in the novel and, once I got to the part where he tells Zelda to get rid of their possible baby, I was completely done with his character. When Zelda found out that she wasn't actually pregnant, she wrote: "Things have a way of working out for us, and this is just one more sign." The thing is, I don't think Scott believed that. He wasn't one to just sit around and wait for things to work themselves out. I feel like he was going to plow his own way ahead and woe to anyone or anything that got in his way. I grew tired of the selfish comments he would throw around and was so mad when he insisted that they name their baby Scottie after him (even though I think the name Scottie is adorable for a little girl). I was doing a silent fist pump in the air when Zelda finally told him off that night on the balcony after he accused her of trying to sabotage him.

For the rest of the book, my dislike for Scott just kept growing. Maybe I'm being too harsh on him. Do you think his behavior was acceptable given the attitude of the time pertaining to women and their place in a marriage? What did you think of him sending Zelda off to be "re-educated" and learn how to be a dutiful wife. I was steaming by that point.

This book left me wondering if Zelda really had mental health issues like so many others, including Scott and Ernest Hemingway claimed, or if she was just a victim of her circumstances. I think Scott was too eager to push Zelda into an institution and claim that she was ill. And I think Zelda accepted it because, in some capacity, it brought a welcome structure to her otherwise chaotic life.

Abi: Like Whitney, I couldn't help but doubt Zelda's supposed "mental health issues." I think she instead suffered from intellectualism and talent -- two traits declared lethal by the male-dominated society in which she lived. Every time I read about her "reeducation," I just waanted to moan in exasperation. How could cruel treatment like that be real? But then, that type of seemingly idiotic diagnosis was apparently normal for that time period. In my opinion, Fowler seems to be using the Zelda character as a way to poke at the traditionally male literary canon. The great, white, male authors (most notably for this book, Fitz and Hem) dominated the scene only because they had the power to shuffle the equally talented female author off to a "spa" to "recuperate from womanly illnesses." Often, Zelda refers to rivers, oceans, and large bodies of water. She compares herself to these entities and finds comfort swimming or at the beach. Traditionally, water is a symbol of femininity, and the unknown. Her intellectual, creative, and actual voices were silenced and controlled.

And, yes, the Scott character did profoundly frustrate me. Yet, the more I read, the more I began to pity him. I began to wonder if he was playing a part. Society demanded that he be a literary genius, a powerful man, a firm husband. He had no tools, no frame of reference from which to approach interacting with an intellectual woman. He wanted the beautiful wife, the trophy on his arm -- not someone as smart as Zelda. He expected to be her support and livelihood...and when he realized she could practically support herself? Was just as talented as he? His role fell apart. The sham of his character was exposed. The word that came to mind when reading Scott's character was "emasculated" -- not so much by Zelda but by the society that commanded he act the way he does. And I believe that Zelda's concerns -- near the end of the novel -- that Scott is homosexual underscores this concept.

3. A little kindness goes a long way

Whitney: This may sound strange, but I thought this book had a lot of lessons that are applicable to marriage, especially since most of the book centered around Scott and Zelda's fraught marriage. Zelda even warned a friend once to not pattern her marriage after their own.

I think Scott and Zelda never learned how to live together. They knew how to have fun and chase after wild adventures together, but once that subsided they were left staring at each other's glaring faults and unable to look past them.

When they were living in Saint-Raphael, there's a scene where Zelda gets angry at Scott for going out with his buddies rather than working on his book. Scott lashes out at her and accuses her of doing nothing but "flirting with flyboys and laying in the sun" all day. They were each so caught up in their own emotional worlds that it was hard to put themselves in the other's shoes. Scott was feeling dejected and unproductive. Zelda was feeling lonely and purposeless, and the result was two people who took their feelings out on each other rather than showing a little kindness. Maybe that wouldn't have solved all their problems, but I think letting their frustrations simmer below the surface for so many years ultimately led to a deep resentment of one another.

Abi: Fowler's portrayal of a fractured marriage did caution me too. Scott and Zelda were constantly at odds, constantly competing -- so much so that their union and even their health dissolved beneath the strain. Not too be too didactic here, but what a warning. Mark and I are both ambitious people. We each have our goals and our dreams. Fowler's novel certainly made me pause and consider our own pathway. Are we supporting each other? Are we doing everything we can to help the other actualize their individual goals? Part of being married is being the other person's support. Fowler's Scott and Zelda certainly fell short here, something that could be all too easy a trap to fall into.

Here are some questions that we're curious to hear your opinion on:
  • Do you think Zelda was manipulating Scott by refusing to marry him until he made a name for himself?
  • What did you think of Scott's insistence that they only hire strict nannies to care for Scottie?
  •  Do you believe that Hemingway really was to blame for the disaster Scott and Zelda made of their lives?
  • What did you think about the book overall? Therese Fowler admits in the prologue that almost all accounts of Scott and Zelda are either Team Scott or Team Zelda. It's understandable why this novel leaned more towards Team Zelda since it is, after all, a novel about her life. Do you think it is a fairly accurate representation of their lives and personalities? Or do you think it's too biased against Scott?

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