I've been meaning to read Z for ages. I just loved F.Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (my review) for it's complicated portrayal of a marriage in decline, so I was keen to find out more about the real marriage behind the story. Z is a fictionalised account of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald from her days as Zelda Sayre from Alabama through the whirlwind days of her early marriage to the time she spent in various institutions suffering from poor mental health. It's a portrait of both a woman struggling to be known for something other than being F.Scott Fitzgerald's wife and of a turbulent marriage.
I loved this book! I was expecting to like it but I wasn't expecting to love it in the just-one-more-chapter, unputdownable, kind of way. The whole issue of Scott and Zelda's marriage is a thorny one, with Zelda accused in some quarters of destroying Scott's potential and driving him to drink, and Scott accused of driving her into a mental asylum. Fowler manages to tread a more sensitive line and present a more balanced portrayal of a marriage in which two people love each other greatly, but simply can't be happy together.
Zelda's voice is just perfect. She declares in an initial chapter that all she wants from life is "joy and drama and passion and romance" and boy does she get it. Zelda is reckless, high-spirited, ambitious and utterly charming and she just jumps off the page at you. The way Fowler writes her is just full of life and energy and you can't help but fall in love with her a little bit. I'm not the reckless sort myself so I loved reading about her bathing in a flesh-coloured swimsuit to encourage rumours that she swam nude or jumping into the fountain at Union Square.
The relationship between Zelda and Scott is portrayed very realistically. It's clear that they love each other and Zelda, who had never been out of Alabama before, is swept away by the bright lights and lifestyle of New York. Zelda and Scott are both reckless and they encourage this in each other, delighted in being seen as symbols of their age, acting more like characters out of a novel than real people. Of course, all of their partying and spending comes back to bite them later in the form of Scott's dependence on alcohol and their constant money problems. Both love drama and both lack the skills to communicate effectively, making endless promises to start over and make everything fresh.
Because Zelda and Scott really do love each other, the book is quite sad at times. We get to see moments of them genuinely caring for each other, like Zelda picking up Scott's ego after a failure in his career, or Scott not leaving Zelda's bedside when she is ill, but ultimately they just can't work out how to be happy together. Anyone who is married themselves or who has been in a long-term relationship will know that it takes more than love to make a relationship work and Z is about what happens when you have a lot of love, but not much else. I love books that show complicated relationships like this, that show how love can hurt as much as it can make you happy. Fowler did this fantastically, and this is what had me glued to the pages.
As you can tell, I loved Z and would whole-heartedly recommend it. I've finished this book with an urge to read Zelda's own novel, Save Me the Waltz, as well as Scott's The Beautiful and the Damned. I might even try some Hemingway again.
I'm going to conclude the review with my favourite passage from the novel;
"It just seemed like we were embarking on a great adventure, but that adventure turned into a party we couldn't resist, a five-year-long party, everybody in sparkling gowns and tuxedos with satin lapels, bottomless glasses of champagne...But that's not a marriage, that's not a way to live. Real life has to happen sometime."
Source: Library, though I also have a review copy from Netgalley.
First Published: 2013
Score: 5 out of 5.