Friday, July 18, 2014

Two Fictional Takes on Zelda Fitzgerald

I liked the window in on Zelda Fitzgerald and her tumultuous marriage to writer F. Scott Fitzgerald by fictional psychiatric nurse Anna Howard in Call Me Zelda: A Novel by Erika Robuck. Anna becomes a Fitzgerald family employee, leaving her job at a Baltimore residential psychiatric clinic. She has a way with Zelda as much as anyone else does, and Zelda and Scott come to depend upon Anna for help. Soon she is spending most of her time at their home, caring for their daughter and completing other household tasks that fall outside the scope of her original agreement with the Fitzgeralds. As those interested in the Fitzgeralds' personal lives already know, their marriage, home life and finances were in a constant up-and-down motion, and good moods could shift at any moment.

What I liked about this book is that we got to know Anna both during and away from her work with the Fitzgeralds. We had a window into her world too, and it was one I was very interested in reading about. Anna has experienced tremendous loss in her personal life before the novel begins but remains very close to her extended family. Not only is she a gifted and devoted nurse, but she is a caregiver for her aging parents and close to her brother, a priest. At the risk of giving the book away, I like that Anna got her happy ending.

The book pulls away some from the Fitzgeralds in the second half of the book when Anna remains in Baltimore and Zelda Fitzgerald goes to stay at Highland Hospital, Asheville's psychiatric hospital. Though Anna thinks of Scott and Zelda often, she has not been in their employ for over a decade when a letter from Zelda causes Anna to make another journey for her former patient. This trip ends in Asheville the day before a fire destroyed the main building of the hospital, killing several patients who were not able to escape from their locked rooms. Zelda was one of these patients.

Directly after finishing Call Me Zelda, I dove right into Guests on Earth by Lee Smith. I had the pleasure of hearing Smith read from this novel a few months ago, which really makes a story come alive for me. I liked Guests on Earth for many of the same reasons I liked Call Me Zelda: it's an observer's description of the Fitzgeralds, except this time mostly Zelda. I thought Guests on Earth was a good one. I enjoyed reading it (I've never met a Lee Smith novel I didn't like), but it had less Zelda in it than I envisioned before I started reading the book.

Using a similar technique, Smith writes her novel using Highland Hospital as the setting and the narrator is a fellow patient, a girl named Evalina. Evalina's life at Highland, including her encounters with Zelda, is what makes up the plot of this novel. Evalina Toussaint is a misplaced young girl in need of a caring environment in which to grow up, and ends up at Asheville's Highland Hospital where Zelda is also a patient. The two get to know each other during Zelda's early days at the hospital, but in later years the two don't have a close relationship, though each of the women is still a Highland Hospital resident.

This book really is about Evalina's life, most of which happened at Highland Hospital. Evalina befriends many fellow residents, takes a leave of absence to see the world with a man she doesn't end up marrying as planned, and winds up back at Highland as a part-time staff member. Like Call Me Zelda, Guests on Earth ends with the hospital's tragic fire but the getting there (even though I knew it was coming) seemed rushed at the end.

Both books paint Zelda as troubled but extremely talented at writing (Call Me Zelda) and dancing (Guests on Earth). I'm just fascinated by the Fitzgeralds.

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