x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Book review: Therese Anne Fowler's debut novel provides an interesting angle on Zelda Fitzgerald

In Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler explores the "first flapper" of the Jazz Age's relationship with the dissolute F Scott.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Therese Anne Fowler
Two Roads

Therese Anne Fowler's debut fiction, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, arrives with impeccable timing, emerging just a few weeks before the release of Baz Luhrmann's cinematic interpretation of The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan.

If previous film adaptations of F Scott Fitzgerald's master work have failed to truly capture the elegant essence of the book - Robert Redford and Mia Farrow starred in perhaps the most famous example, a 1974 movie that is widely considered to have fluffed its lines - they have always served to spike interest anew in the author and his often glittering back catalogue. The same will undoubtedly be true when Luhrmann's film breaks cover.

For her historical fiction, Fowler reimagines the Scott Fitzgerald story from an interesting angle, basing her novel on his firebrand wife, Zelda, the so-called "first flapper" of the Jazz Age. A representation of her cloche hat- and pearl necklace-wearing image adorns the book jacket, radiating period glamour and, perhaps, a mild pulse of recklessness.

Zelda has often been portrayed as Yoko Ono to Scott Fitzgerald's John Lennon, perceived, perhaps unfairly, to have had an entirely malignant effect on an otherwise precious talent. Like Ono, Zelda was a creative force in her own right, but both women's careers have been wholly overshadowed by (and almost entirely subsumed to) the men they married. Zelda is ripe, in other words, for a corrective retrospective similar to the one that is currently being trailed around the world in Ono's honour (see The Review's cover story this week).

Fowler tips her own hat to this fact in her prologue, which winds its way back to the day before F Scott Fitzgerald died in December 1940, aged just 44. We find Zelda, by then diagnosed with bipolar disorder, offering encouraging words to her husband as he struggles to finish his latest manuscriptand, almost in the same breath, asking him to wire her some cash. So far, so familiar.

From there, Fowler reverses to 1918, and the final months of the First World War, when a young Zelda meets Scott Fitzgerald, a handsome army officer and aspiring writer, and the two begin a courtship that will eventually lead to their ruinous marriage.

The couple soon embark on a whistle-stop tour of the world's most glamorous locations, where their hedonistic lifestyle is fuelled by the easy money Scott Fitzgerald can pick up for selling a dashed-off short story or two to one of the literary magazines jostling to publish his words.

In all of this, Zelda emerges as a sane, thoroughly reasonable voice. Indeed, in Fowler's pages she is a compassionate presence in the face of her husband's alcohol-addled oafishness. She recognises very early in the piece that Scott Fitzgerald is frittering his considerable talents away.

Interestingly, Ernest Hemingway stalks Fowler's largely enjoyable historical fiction. It is he, surprisingly, who ties his literary friend in more career-ending knots than Scott Fitzgerald's supposedly destructive wife.

nmarch@thenational.ae