Before I retired from teaching, at the beginning of each school year I would find out the grade level of English I would be teaching. Every year I weighed the pros and cons of each level of high school. Not because of the age–no, that would be too obvious–but because of the great piece of literature I would get to share with them. The Junior year almost always won out because I would be given the opportunity to teach The Great Gatsby to my students. We could wander back to a time of boot-legging, flapper girls and political unrest. To instill in my students the ability of a classic novel to come to life and have them tag me years later on Facebook when the book they had to read had become a movie with some actor named Leonardo DiCaprio would make my heart would swell with pride. (Oh yeah! I’m the one that taught them that baby!)
When I learned that Stewart O’Nan had just written a historical fiction depicting the life of Fitzgerald after he wrote Gatsby, I was enthralled. The book, West of Sunset, had me instantly mesmerized by the cover. The highlights of a barely seen roadster (and who doesn’t remember the roadster in Gatsby?) glowing on the Hollywood horizon had me at Hellooooo.
I finished the book in a mere week, putting everything aside as I was absorbed. What I had once taught my students about Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife, his daughter, Scottie, and his enchanted life was shattered by the words of O’Nan. He transported me to another era in which Fitzgerald was nomadic in his lifestyle. His fame was short lived and he had to dally in writing for playwrights and the ever famous Warner, Mayer and other Broadway blow hards. It was a competitive market for writers volleying for the claim to have their name scrolled across the big screen with credits given for Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, among others. For all the titles on which Fitzgerald worked, his name would not appear on the screen; he fought viciously to stay in the market–when and only when he could keep his sobriety in check.
The mental state of unrest of Zelda Fitzgerald made you banter with your internal self whether Fitzgerald was a doting husband and father, or a slob of a drunkard who was narcissistic on multiple levels. His love affair with a gossip-columnist and his friendships with the who’s-who of Hollywood kept the suspense continuous. I worried for his job, his health, his sanity. I got to meet Joan Crawford, Vivian Leigh, his good friend Ernest Hemingway, Bogart and others at the Christmas parties thrown by Mr. Warner and living in The Garden. The cliche, the lives of the rich and famous, was remarkably described in this book. O’Nan has a way of allowing the reader to escape the realities of the here and now and challenge you to reconsider what you once thought fact, and to realize there is more to an author than the novel which started his fame.
West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan (Viking | 9780670785957 | January 13, 2015)