A novel titled “Z” should eventually, if not immediately, make the reader think of one of the more famous and talented American literary wives. Therese Anne Fowler’s novel successfully—for the most part—retells the energetic, tense two decades of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s relationship. Published in a year that’s seen several adaptations of the Fitzgeralds as literary qua cultural icons—including another novel and much-heralded film—Z creatively adopts Zelda’s voice and point of view and, in the process, continues 2013 as the year of reimagining the Fitzgeralds.
I liked the Luhrmann film quite a bit, and I had modestly high hopes for Z. As both scholar and fan of the Fitzgeralds’ writings, I approach popular adaptations from a fluid perspective—I embrace them as fiction, even as I’m familiar with a lot of the biography and criticism that informs such a novel, and thus am particularly interested in the choices adaptors make around the facts of the Fitzgeralds’ lives. To her credit, Fowler is upfront about Z as fiction: “Fiction based on real people differs from nonfiction in that the emphasis is not on factual minutiae, but rather on the emotional journey of the characters” (374). She meshes actual and imagined events in Z—sometimes with success (as with the fictional letters she interweaves throughout, or Zelda’s own writing), sometimes with room for debate (such as the homoerotic tension Fowler’s Zelda reports between her husband and Hemingway). Reading Z for what it’s intended to be—a creative appropriation geared toward a popular audience—is rewarding and engaging.
“We have never been what we seemed,” Z’s famous narrator-character writes in the Prologue (5). Most of Zelda’s story as rendered in Z gets behind the public images of the Fitzgeralds to their private married lives and Zelda’s psychological complexity. Though Fowler handles her narrator-character and structure more adeptly, Z is written in the spirit of The Paris Wife (which allows another famous literary wife of the 1920s, Hadley Richardson Hemingway, to tell her story) and similar novels blurring literary fiction and ‘chick lit.’ (Other readers might be able to compare Fowler to Erika Robuck, who’s written Hemingway’s Girl and Call Me Zelda recently.)
Fowler’s smooth, lucid prose and narrative patterning make Z readable and enlightening. Consider her description of Scott’s momentum after This Side of Paradise is published:
But that first gust had turned into a strong breeze bringing him all the things he had now: reviews from papers around the country. Books selling out of stores. New stories sold in new places. Steady money coming in. A wedding at St. Patrick’s. A luxurious Biltmore suite. Reporters wanting to interview him— (86),
or the later recounting of Zelda’s conflicted feelings for—and infidelity with—a French aviator while visiting the Riviera:
I had already sensed the attraction between us—it was apparent from the first time we met—but that sort of attraction was so usual that it didn’t rate serious attention, let alone concern. When the attraction turned into something that smelled and tasted like substance, though, that was when things got complicated. (173)
In these and other passages, Fowler captures an emotional and psychological truth of what Zelda may have been feeling as wife, lover, mother, ballerina, and writer. “Right now,” Zelda narrates at the end of Chapter 39, “I’m the woman who, in an attempt to escape her husband’s life, has begun taking ballet lessons three days a week. She’s not needed at home; her husband directs the maids and the cook and the governess that both she and her daughter despise” (276). Here and elsewhere, Fowler examines some of the flashpoints in the Fitzgeralds’ biographies: How much, if at all, did Scott control Zelda’s creative life? Did she one-up him by publishing her version of their troubled lives (Save Me the Waltz, 1932) before his (Tender Is the Night, 1934)? Who ‘owned’ their lives more for fictional purposes?
Fowler’s Zelda is layered and intriguing. She nicely conveys Zelda’s mental illness and irresponsibility, even emotional distance from her family, such as in a later portion of the passage quoted above: “She will dance and paint and write—and many remarkable things will come of her efforts [….] These are the good things she’ll hold on to later, when she’s in the thick morass of the bad” (276). There’s a sense in which this Zelda comes off as somewhat ‘crazy’ and unstable, such as with the removed “she” voice above, or her uneasy balance of talent, emotional sensitivity, and recklessness.
Creativity and smooth prose aside, Z is not without some flaws. My biggest complaint is where it ends—in late December 1940, when Zelda receives news of her husband’s death. Unless Fowler is currently writing another adaptation of Zelda’s life from 1941–1948, relegating her final eight-plus years to a three-page afterword wastes material ripe for fictional treatment. The final chapter concludes with Zelda and Scottie in Montgomery, Alabama, waiting for the train transporting Scott’s body from California:
Here’s the train whistle now, for the crossing at Court Street, and here’s the rumbling that hails the train’s approach. I know when I see Scottie, I’ll see Scott’s face in hers. The past lives in the present, just like he always said, like he always wrote. There’s comfort in the thought.
And then when Christmas is done–a strange, somber event it’s going to be–Scottie will board the train again, this time bound for Maryland. Again, she’ll be traveling alone. All the worriers around me fear I’m too fragile to endure Scott’s funeral, and I’ve chosen not to fight the current this time.
There’s no need for me to be present; I’m not saying goodbye. (372–73)
As usual, the narration and dialogue nicely convey the inner Zelda, but upon turning the page I was disappointed to realize that I had finished the novel proper. The Afterword reverts to Fowler’s perspective in summarizing Zelda’s final years, the handling of Scott’s estate and legacy, and closes with them buried adjacently in Rockville, MD. On the one hand, ending with the imminent arrival of Scott’s body completes Z’s narrative frame, since the Prologue begins with Zelda about to hear news of her husband’s death, and the end reverberates with change and transition, even enduring love. Yet, this ending underscores something I’d already been bothered by: that the reader gets too much of Zelda-as-Mrs.-Fitzgerald, instead of Zelda-as-Zelda. Given the myriad treatments and romanticized portraits of the “Lost Generation” and postwar Paris, Z would have benefitted from more attention to the 1930s and (especially) 1940s. Effectively ending this finely written novel with Scott’s death and merely touching on Zelda’s post-Scott life in other mental institutions threatens to limit her to being “Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
I’d recommend Z to a scholar, reviewer, lay reader, and anyone else with the same caveat: fiction is not biography, and adapting source material implies changing it in some way. In this vein, Fowler nicely blurs the fictional–biographical lines, such as the fictional letters and journals conveying Zelda’s emotional and psychological truths. Especially poignant is a piece of writing the novel’s Zelda did while first committed in Switzerland, circa 1931:
Even from here, from Prangins today, when I haven’t seen my daughter in three months and no one’s willing to say whether I’m truly well or how much longer it might be before I get to leave, I sit bathed in sunshine that streams through the window and feel a sense of hopefulness, of possibility. (328)
In this case, the biographical facts are Zelda’s mental turmoil and repeated institutionalization, and the emotional truths are the voice and perspective Fowler nicely provides throughout Z. These kinds of psychologically intimate writing scenes show Fowler at her strongest, giving the reader a glimpse into what Zelda felt, might have felt, or should have felt while living in the fissures between “Mrs. Scott Fitzgerald.”