Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is the fictional account of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, written by Therese Anne Fowler. The book is written from Zelda Fitzgerald’s point of view, as if she wrote the story herself. While reading Z, you can easily forget that you’re reading a work of fiction, historical fiction albeit, and that you’ve instead fallen down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world, and stumbled upon a long-lost, unpublished, autobiography of Zelda Fitzgerald. And falling down the rabbit hole would not be suggesting that you’ve strayed too far from the beaten path of this novel.
In fact, Therese Anne Fowler uses a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as an epigraph to one of the sections of Z. From Montgomery, Alabama, to New York, and then on to Paris, Zelda Fitzgerald, formerly Zelda Sayre, must have at times felt like she was Alice. She was 17 years old when she met an aspiring writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald. F. Scott Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery during WWI. When the war ended and the two of them decided to marry in 1920, Zelda found herself in a strange world. It was a strange world, afar off from the Southern societal norms she had been acquainted with her whole life, as the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court Justice.
Z turned out to be a real page turner, spurred on by the details of Zelda’s transformation from a debutante to artist. It is clear that in her lifetime, she was unable to shake off the misnomer of simply being an artist’s wife. Before she met F. Scott Fitzgerald, she was studying ballet. Zelda went on to pursue dance into her marriage, and was invited to join the San Carlo Ballet Company in Naples as a “premier dancer and soloist.” Before she met F. Scott Fitzgerald, she wrote letters and kept a diary. Zelda would go on to write articles and stories that were published in magazines, as well as her novel Save Me the Waltz. She also became a painter. But time and time again, Zelda’s efforts to be respected as an artist in her own right are thwarted. When she declines the San Carlo Ballet Company’s invitation, it is because her husband objects, and she doesn’t want to risk separating from him and her daughter. When she submits stories for approval, they are published under her husband’s name. When her novel is published, it is done so sparingly.
Fowler gives a voice to Zelda’s frustration in letters she has Zelda pen to friends and family members alike. They are wrenching accounts of the disappointment she experiences as an artist, struggling against the tide of what the establishment expects of a 20th century woman. Women are expected to be housewives and mothers. A woman’s duty is to her husband. If a husband dedicates his life to his career and provides an ideal life for his wife, then the wife’s appreciation is to be shown through her unwavering support for his endeavors. No respectable wife would rival her husband’s pursuits, or aspire to be equally accomplished.
Zelda’s consternation ultimately results in a mental breakdown. In the novel, Zelda describes a hallucination she has while sitting in a movie theater with friends. She sees a giant octopus appear. She dives onto the floor just in time to escape the octopus’ tentacles. Zelda is diagnosed with schizophrenia (it is now generally accepted that she was bipolar) and is committed. Zelda’s physical exhaustion from ballet training is partly to blame. The doctor attributes her mental instability chiefly to her obsession with wanting to be an artist. It is interesting to note that the doctor’s main focus in Zelda’s rehabilitation is to remind her of her duties as a housewife. In fact, her rehabilitation is called “re-education.” She cannot be permitted to rejoin her husband and daughter until she has been “re-educated” about what is expected from a wife. Only then, once she has recommitted herself to being a good housewife, can she be free of the evil that exists in becoming distracted by her frivolous attempts to become an artist.
As if the distortions of faulty mental health diagnoses weren’t enough, Zelda also wrestles with other incongruent realities in Z. When she first arrives in New York to marry Scott, she’s overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan environment of the wonderland in which she’s just landed. As newlyweds, the Fitzgeralds visit a bar in Lower Manhattan, and Zelda gets her first taste of the night life. In this bar, she hears a strange type of music she’s never heard before. It’s called Jazz. It’s not the kind of “upbeat tunes of the Follies and Scandals” that “made people want to tap their feet…” Instead this type of music being sung on stage by an African-American singer “…made people want to drape themselves over one another as they sat, and smoked, and sipped from short glasses that in many cases were filled with what looked like green liquid.” Race mixing and green liquid? How much more Alice in Wonderland can you get?
A more glorious wonderland awaited Zelda in Paris where she and Scott join the circle of now legendary artists like Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter and Ezra Pound. At a Cole Porter party, Zelda meets Ada “Bricktop” Smith. Smith tells Zelda to “let it loose, girl!” when she does the Black Bottom dance at the party. Seeing Zelda in those cabarets, with the booze flowing and doing the Black Bottom, through the eyes of anyone in her native Montgomery, must have been akin to the parents of children who’d grown up with Hannah Montana, watching Miley Cyrus twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards. Whether it was rebelling against society or her parents, Zelda’s adventures also lead her to being exposed to feminism. She learns of a “…kind of feminism that was developing women’s natural tendencies to exist in groups with other women and children, rather than in traditional marriages.”
Essentially, Z is a love story. It’s a love story about artists. In chapter 2 when Zelda asks her sister Tootsie about love, she asks “Is it like Shakespeare?” “You know, is it all heaving bosoms and fluttering hearts and mistaken identities and madness?” Tootsie answers “Yes, it is exactly like that. Gird yourself, little sister.” Zelda’s Aunt Julia, the African-American nurse who tended to her needs as a child also tries to prepare her for the unknown that awaited her. Aunt Julia tells her of the mystical African river that is full of demons. Those demons whisper in your ear. “They love you, they say. You should give yourself to them, stay with them, become one of them, they say. ‘Isn’t it good here?’ they say. ‘No pain, no trouble.’ But also no light and no love and no joy and no ground.”
The tragedy of Z is heart breaking. The narrative is entertaining. The stories of expatriation, Saturday nights at Gertrude Stein’s, Right and Left Bank cafes and cabarets are irresistible to any art lover. Whether or not Zelda Fitzgerald’s art will ever be wholly considered in a light separate from F. Scott Fitzgerald is unknown. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be. After all, in the novel, Scott tells Zelda that when it came to his success as a writer, he had done it all for her. Perhaps she, too, had done it all for him.