Literary Wives: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

I have never really been drawn to stories about the “Jazz Age” or the people who go with it. And after my ‘blah’ experience reading about Ernest Hemingway and his wives a few months ago, I was worried I’d feel the same way about this book. Happily, I ended up enjoying this one so much more; maybe because I found it more focused on the wife than the husband, maybe their story is just more interesting to me, or maybe because we had more time to get to know Zelda than we did any of the Hemingway wives. What a complex woman, and an interesting life she lived. But sad, too, and at times, maddeningly frustrating.

The book touches on other aspects of Zelda’s life, but for the most part it’s about her relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, because once they’re together, everything else she does (or tries to do, or has done to her) is influenced by her husband and the circumstances of their life together. Which makes me think about how this might be true for all of us, even if we like to think otherwise.

That commodity [time], once so plentiful that we spent it on all-day hangovers and purposeless outings with people I’ve long forgotten, has become more precious than we ever imagined it could be. Too many of our dear ones are ruined now, or gone. Nothing except luck protects you from catastrophe. Not love. Not money. Not faith. Not a pure heart or good deeds – and not bad ones either, for that matter. We can, any of us, be laid low, cut down, diminished, destroyed.

I’ve only ever read this one account of the marriage of Scott and Zelda, but according to this book, they seem to be devoted to each other; they don’t always like each other, but they can’t seem to let each other go. (Unlike the feeling I got while reading about Hemingway and his wives.) However, their life together is one wild and rocky ride with many obstacles, some of which seemed impossible to overcome – especially given the time they were living in. What might she have accomplished in a different life?

Obstacles:

1) Scott’s alcoholism. Even though I knew how the story would go (as many of us do), I still kept hoping and wishing he would pull himself together. As with my comment about Zelda, think of what he could have accomplished had it not been for his fondness for the drink. I think, more than anything, Scott’s alcoholism was the biggest obstacle of their happiness. All the insecurities, arguments, differences they had were exaggerated and not properly dealt with as long as Scott was drunk or thinking about getting drunk.

2) Zelda’s mental illness. Zelda’s illness was misdiagnosed (and badly handled by everyone involved), and she ended up spending a lot of time in institutions “getting well”. This put a strain on her relationship with Scott, their finances, and sadly, her relationship with their daughter Scottie. But in addition to this, it was later discovered that the “treatments” she received actually had a detrimental effect on her health, and she was plagued by it for the rest of her life.

3) Finances. Scott and Zelda were sometimes rolling in money, but just as often their finances were unstable and unpredictable over the years, partly because of the nature of Scott’s career, but also because of their over-the-top lifestyle and Scott’s alcoholism. Zelda worried about the money, but was told by Scott that it was his concern, not hers.

4) Ernest Hemingway. The reason I’m adding Hemingway to this list is because the book suggests that Zelda saw him as the reason for the “disaster” they made of their lives. Scott and Ernest became close as Scott ‘helps’ him over the years. And lends him money. But at the same time, Zelda believes that Ernest is convincing Scott that she is the reason for all Scott’s troubles. There are times, after he and Ernest become friends, that he accuses Zelda of being the reason he can’t produce another novel, or the reason he needs to keep drinking. It’s interesting to compare the way Hemingway is portrayed in this book versus in Mrs. Hemingway. I’m sure there are other perspectives of their friendship out there, as well. And now I see why people are so intrigued by their stories.

And the reason we are here…

5) Differing views about Zelda’s role as a wife. Scott was more traditional than Zelda in his views of wifehood and motherhood; he wanted to be able to support her, provide her everything she needed/wanted, and thought that she should be content with this. He also believed that making her husband happy was her greatest priority as a wife. Zelda wanted something for herself (as most of us do) outside of being a wife and mother. She was very talented as a painter, writer and dancer, and attempted to achieve success through all of these venues. But Scott dismissed them as “hobbies”, and wished for her to cut down on them so she would have more time to devote to her husband. He also asserted his dominance in matters such as pro-creation (or not), naming their child, and putting his own name on her published stories. Unfortunately for Zelda, Scott’s views were supported by his friends, her doctors (“You realize now that a wife must first tend to domestic matters. Good. This is paramount to every woman’s happiness.“), society in general, and even her mother (“Certainly women deserve time to pursue hobbies and such, and can find fulfillment in interests of their own, but we are not entitled to assert them over our husbands’ priorities and wishes. Perhaps if you will accept this, your health will improve and subsequently so will your happiness.”). And leaving him was not an option because of the custody laws at the time.

Despite all this, it’s possible that they cared enough about each other that, under other circumstances, they might have been able to work it out to some degree, but their discussions about it were always either fueled by alcohol or cut short by it. So there wasn’t much of a chance to find out.

Scott:

You don’t understand, Zelda, and you never will because your life is nothing but a series of low-risk amusements. Shopping and hair appointments and painting lessons and parties. I seek information about my very existence, my fate, not out of some idle curiosity but because our future depends on this book’s performance.

…men need compensation for the pressures they face every day. They need to know that all their effort matters to the woman in their life. We give up our freedom, devote our entire selves to one woman… so is it too much to want that woman to make us her favorite activity? (Yes!)

You’re not a ballerina, you know; you’re my wife. You need to start devoting your time to your actual duties.

It’s my life that makes yours worthwhile!

Zelda:

Our ruts were now so deeply cut into the landscape, and we were so tired and worn, that neither Scott nor I could steer ourselves anyplace new.

Why was it that every time I finally chose, every time I did, my efforts failed – I failed – so miserably? Why was I so completely unable to take control of my own life? Was there any point to it, for me? I’d thought it was Scott I was fighting against, but now I wondered if it was Fate.

Upon swallowing this black, bitter truth [of worthlessness], I began to shrink, and before long grew so tiny within the world that I very… nearly… disappeared.

Scott and Zelda had so many factors conspiring against them, some of which were of their own making, they didn’t seem to stand a chance. Yet, according to this fictional account, they stuck together to the very end, claiming devotion to one another. Zelda even says, at the end of the book, “Even now I wouldn’t choose differently than I did.” Because of the extraordinary circumstances of her life, her marriage was made public and immortalized, but I think she contended with many of the same issues any other woman did at that time (and some still do); more opportunities, and a voice/life independent of her husband’s.

Scott had many faults; he was insecure, pompous, selfish, and he had a deadly weakness for the drink. But his biggest fault, I think, was his obsessive dependence on Zelda, and not being able to let her go.

*****************************************************

A final thought: As I was reading this, I was thinking about the fact that Scott and Zelda’s days of socializing and partying were happening at about the same time as L.M.Montgomery was writing the Emily books, which I have been reading this winter for the Emily Readalong. Their lives and their books feel like two completely different worlds. Did Montgomery ever read any of the Fitzgeralds’ work? Was she influenced by it? Or vice versa?

******************************************************

On the first Monday in June we’ll be discussing The Awakening by Kate Chopin – you’re welcome to read along and join in the conversation!

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52 thoughts on “Literary Wives: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

    • Naomi says:

      Most of the books you hear about her having read tend to be older books – not so much contemporary (for her). But she must have read some contemporary novels. It would be fun to know more about it!

  1. susanosborne55 says:

    I do enjoy this series, Naomi. Such an interesting contrast between the Fitzgeralds and the Hemingways. Despite the challenges of mental health and alcoholism these seems to be a firm foundation to their marriage, clearly absent from Hemingway and his three wives’ relationship. They seemed to get on better with each other than with him. From your quotes I think I’d grind my teeth over Fitzgerald’s views on what makes a good wife – love your bracketed ‘Yes!’ – although he’s obviously a product of his times.

    • Naomi says:

      I wondered after if I should also have included the quotes that show his love and devotion to his wife, because they are in there as well. Only putting up the ones he spouted during their arguments doesn’t seem quite fair.

      And, yes, through most of the book I couldn’t help but wonder what their marriage would have been like under other circumstances.

  2. FictionFan says:

    Have you read Tender is the Night? I did, but so long ago I’ve pretty much forgotten it completely – it’s on my TBR for a re-read. It would be interesting to see how it compares with this account. My dim recollection isn’t of the marriage being as unequal as this suggests, but a) I was much younger when I read it and b) it’s from the husband’s perspective, of course. Are the quotes in this one entirely made up, or did she use letters and so on?

    • Naomi says:

      I believe it’s all fictionalized. I think she used real letters to base it on, but not necessarily to quote from.

      I haven’t read Tender is the Night (only Gatsby), but of course now I want to! Maybe you’ll get to it before I do!

  3. BookerTalk says:

    I picked this up on a whim simply because it was on sale in hardback for £1. Sounds like it might be worth me actually reading it instead of using it as a dust catcher.

  4. whatmeread says:

    They were such an unusual couple that it never occurred to me that part of their relationship boiled down to that age-old “woman’s place is in the home” argument. But of course it did. So good point about Zelda’s role as a wife being viewed differently by each of them.

    • Naomi says:

      I feel like it was just the same old thing, except emphasized and exaggerated by fame and alcohol, and possibly by Zelda’s strong personality. Even that strong personality couldn’t gain her her independence from her husband.

      The question I keep asking myself is: is Scott really the villain, or is he just like all the other men who believe their wives should be at home supporting them? Even the doctors were on his side. Or are they just a product of their time? And I keep asking myself why I didn’t automatically dislike him like I did with Ernest Hemingway. I pitied him more than I disliked him.

  5. Valorie Grace Hallinan says:

    This is a fascinating review, thank you for this! I’d heard that Z is a good book. I’ve been interested in Zelda because she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and so was my mother. I’m curious to know – was this then, apparently, considered a misdiagnosis? And, her treatments were detrimental….sadly, most treatments for the mentally ill, and especially women, in those days, were probably more detrimental than helpful. This was not unusual. It was partly because it was so tied up, too, with what was viewed as women’s “appropriate” roles – women who departed from those were pathologized. I hope to read Z and maybe more about Zelda, but my impression was that, like many highly talented and creative women, she was to a large degree oppressed by the sexist culture of her time….it’s difficult to tease out all the various influences and onslaughts she faced, but certainly the very sexist attitudes of Scott, Hemingway, and society were a big part of this.

    • Naomi says:

      The schizophrenia was apparently a misdiagnosis – I think I read that later, after her death, it was determined that she was more likely bipolar.
      Before reading this book, I had no idea that Zelda had been talented in so many areas. It’s too bad she’s known more for her illness than her accomplishments and talents.
      At first, it seemed as though Scott was very encouraging about her writing, but by the end I think he had become jealous of the fact that she could sit down and write. He no longer had the attention span and concentration abilities required to write a novel, because of his alcoholism.

  6. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one more than the book about Hemingway’s wives. This might be a perfect example of one of those “they can’t live with or without each other” relationships. Even if F. Scott had had a more “modern” idea of a wife, where he would have let her write or dance, I don’t think they would have been much happier overall. I much prefer Montgomery’s world to the Jazz Age world!

    • Naomi says:

      Their life was so frustrating in so many ways. I wanted to shake them both at times! I agree – I’ll take LMM any day over the “Jazz Age”!

  7. AYearOfBooksBlog says:

    I really enjoyed this book also. It was such an oppulent, overdone lifestyle that they shared. I finished the book feeling badly for Scottie and so sad that Zelda did not get the treatment she needed and died such a horrible way. It is interesting to contrast with LM Montgomery. I am sure that there were many writers who were shocked by the behaviour of others! Great blog post!!

  8. heavenali says:

    I find the idea of this book fascinating. I do lean rather more than you do to stories of the Jazz age. I so love The Great Gatsby. I think I have a book by Zelda herself – somewhere.

    • Naomi says:

      If I had all the time in the world I would definitely be making a new project out of a further exploration into the lives of these writers!

  9. JacquiWine says:

    I love the whole Jazz Age thing, so the Fitzgeralds are of great interest to me. My only hesitation about this relates to the fictional nature of the book as I tend to be somewhat way of novels that feature people from real life. I guess I would probably be more inclined to read a biography about Zelda to keep my facts separate from my fiction!

    • Naomi says:

      I know what you mean, Jacqui. It does bother me not to know which parts are true and which parts are fabricated or imagined. But it was still an entertaining read!

  10. buriedinprint says:

    Listening to a blow-by-blow account of another reading friend’s exploration of Zelda’s marriage (I can’t recall – I thought it was this book, too, but now I’m not certain) told from her POV made me really NOT want to read FScott. (And somehow I missed TGG in schoool.) The idea that she had invested so much of her own artistic nature in his work, directly and indirectly, really rattled my desire to read his stuff, although perhaps I should have done so as an act of recognition for all that she did contribute! It really is hard to believe that Emily is being written in the same time period: such different worlds! (I don’t remember making a note of her having read FSF, when I was reading her later journals, but, then, if I was already thinking I didn’t want to read it myself, I might have edited it out of my own notes!)

    • Naomi says:

      I can definitely see that take on it. I think I’m more interested in reading Zelda’s fiction – I didn’t even know she had written anything before reading this book. Supposedly Scott edited it some of it before it was published which makes me wonder what she wrote about. I feel like it would give me some insight into her own life, but it could be that it wouldn’t help me at all!

  11. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    I read this when it came out and really enjoyed it, a lot more than reading Fitzgerald’s work, I abandoned Tender is the Night and wasn’t overly impressed with the Great Gatsby either, Zelda was great for them all when she was the party girl and gave all her attention to her husband, but I think he was rather jealous at her ease in pursuing her own creative talents, such a loss to have had to abandon her dance ambitions, she really wasn’t encouraged in her ambitions, but I guess it is something positive that she was even able to experience them, as so many women don’t get that close in pursuit of those kind of dreams. A tragic tale and well done in my opinion. We should be reading more of and about the women of these times, and stop putting Hemingway and Fitzgerald on pedestals.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s a good point, Claire, about the fact that Zelda was able to pursue her interests and talents quite a lot – something I’m sure many women weren’t able to do. I hadn’t thought of it that way around before!
      And, yes, I agree – we need to read more books about the women!

  12. Valorie Grace Hallinan says:

    I read a biography of the Fitzgerald’s a long time ago – can’t recall the title – and the biographer spent some time critiquing Zelda’s novel. The writer was not impressed with the writing. However, I have to wonder now, about how many manuscripts need plenty of revision and shaping and feedback from a good editor. If Zelda had had the same attention and encouragement as her husband, we don’t know how well she might have done and how talented she really was. She died tragically in a fire in an institution. They had divorced, Scott remarried and went out to Hollywood to write scripts, but he couldn’t deal with Hollywood and at that point he was near the end of his life anyway.

  13. Sandra says:

    Fascinating post, thanks Naomi! I read The Paris Wife a year or two back, which focuses on Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife. It made me want to read much more about this group of writers and their wives but of course, I’ve yet to find the time. Z definitely sounds like a book to read when I finally get back to this era. I’ve been so enjoying the Emily books (and have now moved on to The Alpine Path to learn more about LMM) – hard to think of her writing at the same time as FSF!

    • Naomi says:

      I thought that, too. I feel like they were living in two different worlds (which, I guess they kind of were).
      I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying the Emily books! I haven’t read The Alpine path – you’ll have to let me know what you think of it!

      A lot of people seem to have read and liked A Paris Wife -I’ll have to consider that the next time I want to go back to those people. I hope the author managed to keep Ernest out of it as much as possible. 🙂

      • Sandra says:

        I’m afraid Ernest loomed large in The Paris Wife! But it showed him in his youth when he was passionately determined and idealistic in his quest to become a great writer so before he became the man we think of now when we consider him. I enjoyed it 🙂

  14. Bina says:

    Ha those modern for their age dudes and their very old idea about women’s place! Not my kinda book I think, but people say married folks can put each other through a special form of hell, so it would make for fascinating reading. I hope there are as many books about supportive couples! 🙂 It’s good that the focus here was actually on Zelda and not Scott. Will you be reading more books about them?

    • Naomi says:

      The group has already read The Paris Wife and Mrs. Hemingway (I wasn’t part of the group yet when they read The Paris Wife). And there doesn’t seem to be any more on the horizon. I’m tempted to, personally, but my guess is that I’ll get on to something else and forget all about the jazz age for now! Which is just as well. 🙂
      I’m afraid that books about supportive couples are not as easy to come by as the others. Let us know if you come across one that you think we’d like!

  15. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m so glad you ended up enjoying this one! I’ve read several novels about the Fitzgeralds now (the others are Beautiful Fools by R. Clifton Spargo and Villa America by Liza Klaussmann), but this one was my favourite.

  16. madamebibilophile says:

    Really interesting review Naomi. I find this group of writers fascinating but I wasn’t sure whether to read this – I tend to feel a bit uncomfortable with fictionalised biography. You’ve persuaded me to take the plunge!

    • Naomi says:

      I know what you mean about fictional biography (I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction), but it was still a great book for many reasons. I believe the author tried to stay true to the character as much as she could, while putting her own perspective on the way things might have played out.

  17. Grab the Lapels says:

    I love this review, Naomi, and it gave me a lot to think about. I never thought about LMM writing at the same time​ as someone else because she seems like she’s almost from another planet, one that seems simpler and yet miserable at the same time. Possibly…. because the small island creates that effect in her stories?

    I also thought about the movie Big Eyes, which is based on a real artist whose husband takes credit for all of her paintings after he cons her. It last for years. People see her as a little wifey with hobbies, but she’s the actual talent locked in a room, churning out work.

    Finally, your comment about all of us letting our husbands take the star role, whether we want to admit it it not. I think that’s true. Lately, I’ve been trying to do more things independent of my husband just for me. I applied for a writer in residence position in the Porcupine Mountains, which would last TWO WEEKS. If I get it, it will be the longest we’ve ever been apart.

    • Naomi says:

      Good for you for applying for that writer in residence position – that’s awesome! And, yes, exactly the kind of thing I was thinking of. In our house, my husband gets away more often than I do (a lot more often!), and I really need to start thinking about what I could do.
      Your comment about Big Eyes makes me wonder how many times this happens and we don’t even know about it!

  18. Catherine says:

    Great review, Naomi! It reminded me of why I loved this book. I felt less charitably towards Scott after reading this book and also a biography about Zelda. I think he subjugated her needs to his own desire for fame. She had no chance to succeed on her own with her husband poaching her life for his material.

    Sad all the way around.

    • Naomi says:

      So sad! The whole way through, I kept wondering what their lives might have been like if they had never met. I’m always wondering things that are impossible to know! 🙂

  19. The Cue Card says:

    They seem to have been a drain on each other. But it seems the whole traditional role of her by him kept her down. I find their relationship pretty tragic and unfortunate.

  20. The Paperback Princess says:

    So…you liked this one! You know I share your thoughts on reading about the Jazz Age. This was one of the early exceptions. I loved that this book actually focused on Zelda and her life, dreams, passions. I so wonder what she might have accomplished had their relationship been different or had she lived in a time when she might actually have been able to leave him. I didn’t know what happened to her in the end, and when I read it in this book I was so devastated.

    This is definitely one of the books about a famous man’s wife that really actually works.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree with everything you’ve just said! I truly did not see the means of her death coming – I wonder why I hadn’t heard of it before.

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