Sunday, January 25, 2015

West of Sunset

Over the past few years there's been a steady stream of historical fiction centered around the wives of figures like Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as multiple novels written from the point of view of Zelda Fitzgerald. After reading a couple of the former and hearing about the latter, I couldn't help but imagine the possibilities for a fictional retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald's own life. That retelling has finally arrived in Stewart O'Nan's new novel West of Sunset and it is superb. As a fan of Fitzgerald, I expected to find this novel interesting as it related to him. I didn't expect to love it as a beautiful work in its own right.

West of Sunset does not take place during the heyday of Scott and Zelda's fame in the roaring twenties. Instead, O'Nan smartly sets the work in 1937, after Zelda has been placed in a mental institution and Scott has gone to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter to supplement his dwindling income. It's one of the lesser-known periods of Fitzgerald's life and one that typically fails to pique the same interest as his more glamorous life during the 1920s. In particular, his relationship during that time with gossip columnist Sheila Graham often struck me as being dull and second-rate after the mythical great love that he and Zelda shared. O'Nan's treatment of this period has completely changed my opinion. 

Though a work of fiction, West of Sunset is full of true details of Fitzgerald's Hollywood life. We learn surprising things about his film work, like the fact that he spent a short time writing dialogue for Gone with the Wind. We see him interact with celebrities of the era, both movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and literary peers like Dorothy Parker and Hemingway. (My sole criticism of the book is that in the first chapter or two, the steady stream of celebrity cameos feels a bit forced, but that eventually evens out in the balance of the book.) Perhaps most interestingly, we see his relationship with Sheila Graham in an interesting, complicated light, offset by the sections of the novel in which Scott returns East for visits with Zelda. As he maintains both of these relationships, we see Fitzgerald actively try to hold onto something that is disappearing, a theme in much of his work, and ultimately come to terms with the fact that he cannot. O'Nan manages to convey all of this using a writing style that is worthy of Fitzgerald's own. Although I haven't read any of O'Nan's other works and so don't have a basis to compare West of Sunset to his other writing, it seems that here he manages to perfectly evoke the style of Fitzgerald without falling into mimicry.

As is probably obvious by now, I'd highly recommend this for anyone with an interest in Fitzgerald. I'd even recommend taking a look at the companion book club guide, which, unlike most that I've seen, actually offers some interesting information. As for myself, I'll probably be rereading The Love of the Last Tycoon in the near future. Seeing Fitzgerald's character plan out this final novel in the book has put me in the mood to revisit it.

A copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin. All thoughts and opinions in this post are my own.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post! These always have me adding to my "to read" list :)



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