Between riding the roofs of New York taxis and swimming in fountains, legend has it the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife were almost as eventful as the lives of his characters in The Great Gatsby.
Since Baz Luhrmann’s take on Gatsby, it seems the Roaring Twenties has come back with a vengeance. It’s accompanied by a renewed interest in Scott Fitzgerald’s complicated life and his equally complicated marriage to Zelda Fitzgerald – the mad, bad, famous flapper who met her end in mysterious circumstances. Or so the story goes.
The book I’ll be reviewing today is Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck (2013). It’s told from the perspective of Anna Howard, a psychiatric nurse at a private clinic in Baltimore where Zelda Fitzgerald has just been admitted with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. While Anna is sensitive to the danger of getting too involved with her patient, she and Zelda form an easy bond – drawn together by shared encounters with tragedy in their pasts. Before long, Anna becomes deeply entangled in Zelda’s turbulent life and decaying marriage.
I’ll begin with the positives. Personally, I knew very little about the Fitzgeralds before I read this novel. Once finished, I was captivated – interested enough to read up on them at any rate. Robuck portrays an incredibly complex marriage marred by depression, frustration and alcoholism. In the book, Scott and Zelda seem to despise and adore one another in equal parts. In many ways, they are each other’s poison but they still belong together. That’s a difficult relationship to evoke successfully, but I think Robuck pulls it off.
Equally, I enjoyed the way Zelda is written – she’s multidimensional rather than simply mad or simply wild. In the book, she is intelligent and creative, energetic and easily stifled. Unfortunately,history remembers her for the scandals rather than for her writing, her art and her ballet – all areas in which she excelled. Robuck also highlights claims that Scott plagiarized sections of Zelda’s diaries and letters for his novels. It’s very interesting stuff, but from a historical perspective the novel definitely takes Zelda’s side. Something to remain aware of.
I do find the 1920s setting fascinating in all its glittering excess, but this book is really about life after the party. We get snapshots of the Jazz Age in Zelda’s letters and reminiscences but what Call Me Zelda really captures is the decay of that world – something Zelda embodies. Through Anna’s eyes we see the world of the 30s – the Depression and the lead up to World War II. I enjoyed all this, but if you are looking for a book that’s all about diamonds and champagne – this probably isn’t the right story for you.
My main problem with Call Me Zelda was its protagonist, Anna. She has an important role as an observer but Robuck also makes an effort to develop Anna’s personal story – her struggles, her past and her hopes for the future. Unfortunately, Anna is completely outshone by the colorful Fitzgeralds and I never felt very attached to her or emotionally invested in her story. Towards the end of the novel, the story jumps forward several years and we miss a huge chunk of Anna’s life. You’ll understand why this was done in terms of Zelda’s narrative, but it still felt quite jarring.
Despite all that, I would recommend Call Me Zelda. It’s an easy, enjoyable read, exploring a truly fascinating and enigmatic literary couple.