Sunday, February 1, 2015


The opulence of The Great Gatsby era couldn’t last forever, not even for F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of the classic American novel, and his wife and companion-in-crime, Zelda.

In West of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan chronicles what happened after the drug- and alcohol-induced, partying to no end, uncontrollable money-spending years were over. At the start of the novel, the infamous couple of the 1920s is separated, with Zelda in an East coast mental hospital on the east coast and Fitzgerald in Hollywood, scrambling to make enough money to support himself while paying for his daughter’s education and his wife’s hospital bills.

In sharp contrast to the days of rich and plentiful, O’Nan depicts an author who is rarely recognized for his literary work and whose health slowly deteriorates as he tries, and fails, to stop drinking. No longer producing bestsellers, Fitzgerald writes scripts for movie giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, work for which he has no enthusiasm as he receives little credit or recognition for his contributions.

O’Nan’s account of the American author is, to put it simply, depressing. There’s little glamour in Fitzgerald’s later life. His mistress, Sheilah, whom he meets while living in Hollywood, replaces Zelda, albeit acting more responsibly than his wife and encouraging Fitzgerald to quit drinking. Her companionship can’t however forestall his ailing health.

The images of Zelda are perhaps the most haunting. At every trip that Fitzgerald makes to the hospital, she is both physically and mentally a different person, sometimes skeletally thin and withdrawn, other times rounder and maniacal. The reader is in the same position as Fitzgerald, unable to predict whether she’ll act out or behave like the ‘old’ Zelda, a state that she rarely reaches. The moments between the pair are tense, foreboding, and eerie. The reader is aware, like Fitzgerald, that the good moments are not meant to last for long, a theme reflected throughout the book.

West of Sunset is a must-read for fans of biography, historical fiction, and of course, Fitzgerald himself. O’Nan’s writing is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s own style, lending authenticity to the narration of his life, despite the novel’s categorization as fiction. Portrayals of famous authors and Hollywood bigwigs that Fitzgerald encounters are a pleasure to read, adding depth to the history of his relationships and the 1930s movie industry as a whole.

Though at times the plot can feel slow – Fitzgerald moves from somber meetings with Zelda at the mental institution to getting replaced on movie scripts in Hollywood to fighting with Sheilah to alcoholism and back again to the institution–and the reader can suspect the inevitable climax of the novel, O’Nan succeeds at crafting a fascinating story out of the final years of a then-forgotten contributor to American literary culture. 

Alicja Grzadkowska is beginning her first semester as a graduate student studying Journalism at Ryerson in the fall. Her bookshelf is stacked with yet-to-read fiction titles, which hasn't stopped her from regularly adding to her collection. Traveling to big cities across North America is another one of her obsessions, and one which she hopes to indulge in again as soon as possible.

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