I read Tender is the Night last weekend for the Classics Club Readathon but have only now got the time to sit down and write about my thoughts properly (I blame going back to work). Before picking up this book, I had read The Great Gatsby (my review), which I liked but not as much as I had hoped. I found the themes interesting but felt that the writing was too detached and failed to make an emotional connection with the characters. Tender is the Night is the opposite of that; it's an emotionally raw, utterly miserable book and it had me captivated from the moment I picked it up.
We start the book with Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress on holiday in the French Riviera in the 1920s. On the beach she meets Dick and Nicole Diver, a rich married couple who have drawn people to them by their wealth, charisma and lifestyle. Rosemary imagines herself instantly in love with Dick and the story seems to be a straightforward tale of possible adultery. But then things change about a third of the way through the novel when we jump back in time to when Dick and Nicole met, at a psychiatric facility where Nicole was being treated. From this point on, Tender is the Night is the story of the steady decline of their marriage and nothing is spared. Nicole's early reliance on Dick feeds into his need to be loved and adored and this forever prevents them from being happy together. I don't know too much about Fitzgerald but much of Tender is the Night seems to be based on his experiences with his wife, Zelda, who also underwent treatment for mental illness.
Nicole is fabulously wealthy and much of the novel is taken up with their attempts to 'stay busy', by constantly visiting new places, going out every day and 'never being too tired for anything'. I've seen reviews of the book criticising it as it's hard to feel sympathy for the ultra-rich, but this wasn't a problem for me. Happiness doesn't depend on your bank balance and the impact of mental illness is felt right across classes. It's soon apparent that the illusion of happiness around the Divers that draws others to them is just that, an illusion. Sure, I'd love to own a home in the French Riveria and not have to work if I didn't feel like it, but I'd much rather be emotionally fulfilled and not have the constant need for external distractions.
It was obvious that some of the novel was based on Fitzgerald's own experiences as everything felt so real, all the complex emotions that go into a marriage, whether it is a happy one or not. The decline of their marriage is protracted and utterly miserable to read about, as they did once genuinely love one another. What I took from this book is the importance of both people in a relationship having the space to grow and be their own people, and to interact as equals. For the Divers, Dick was always the protector and Nicole the patient from the clinic. This meant that whenever Nicole showed signs of independence, their relationship was threatened. Dick's need to be adored was his weakness;
"....realising this power, he had made his choice, chosen Ophelia, chosen the sweet poison and drunk it. Wanting above all to be brave and kind, he had wanted, even more than that, to be loved."
It goes without saying that Tender is the Night is beautifully written. It's not a book to rush through, but one to read slowly and marvel at the lyrical prose. It didn't make me happy to read it, but it certainly had a powerful impact on me. I'm glad I waited until I was well into my twenties and married myself before picking it up. I know that The Great Gatsby is supposedly the 'Great American Novel', but Tender is the Night is the saddest and yet most wonderful book I've read in a long, long time.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1934
My Edition: Vintage, 2010
Score: 5 out of 5