Saturday, January 30, 2016

WEST OF SUNSET






West of Sunset, Stewart O'Nan, Viking, 2015, 289 pp
 
 
 
Summary from Indiebound: In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to an asylum and his finances in ruin, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Those last three years of Fitzgerald's life are the focus of Stewart O Nan's graceful and elegiac novel "West of Sunset." With flashbacks to Fitzgerald's glamorous Jazz Age past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on"The Last Tycoon," and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and their daughter, Scottie. The Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel's romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. Written with striking grace and subtlety, this is a wise and intimate portrait of a man trying his best to hold together a world that's flying apart.
 
My Review: I reviewed this book for an on-line publication last March. I was taking a break from blogging at that time, but it came out in paperback in December, 2015 and was on my list of favorite reads for last year. I am posting the review here now.
 
What a sad story. A fictionalized tale of F Scott Fitzgerald's last years, it is even sadder than that author's fiction. Stewart O'Nan is masterful at writing about sad, tortured, sometimes broken people. In an interview on Other People, he says he wanted to get inside the facts presented in Fitzgerald biographies and create the actual incidents the man lived through in those last years of his life, so of course it had to be a novel.
 
We read about the writer's visits with his wife Zelda, who by then is institutionalized and undergoing the barbaric treatments used in the 1930s: electric shock, insulin shock, etc. Sometimes he takes Zelda and their daughter Scottie, by then in boarding school, on week long vacations. Though their love and marriage and family are basically a shambles, they all try desperately and awkwardly but unsuccessfully to be there for each other. Heartbreaking.
 
But Scott, as he is called in the novel, is the one who must pay for it all. His career as a novelist is also over, his royalties a mere pittance, so he takes a job in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the studio system. The indignities match the pay in their enormity. Scott is an alcoholic though he manages to stay off the booze long enough to write in a tiny office five days a week from nine to six. But there are binges.
 
Still longing for romance, he falls in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Still hoping for another bestseller, he begins a novel, The Last Tycoon. It is all a race against disaster and annihilation; a race he loses at the age of 46.
 
Though O'Nan has never lived in Los Angeles, he captures the city and Hollywood at the end of the 1930s. He includes several celebrities in the story: Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart, and more, in their interactions with Fitzgerald. This novel has the zing of a Fitzgerald creation layered over the crushing despair of a man who was once the highest paid and most famous writer in America.
 
From the little I have read about Scott and Zelda, I had formed the opinion that Fitzgerald was a despicable husband who crushed Zelda's creativity and free spirit. In West of Sunset, he comes across as a man burdened with a mentally ill wife. He loved her once, the magic is so over, but he tries to do right by her and Scottie. The truth? Who knows for sure? The novel is possibly as close to Fitzgerald's truth as we will get.
 
 
(West of Sunset is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 
 
 
 
 

13 comments:

  1. I requested this book last year from NetGalley. I have it on my list to get to this year. I'm not sure I would like something that sad, but I'll give it a try.

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    1. If you like Fitzgerald as a writer, it does give you insight into him as a person.

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    2. Well, I've only read The Great Gatsby and I thought it was fascinating, but I don't know much of Fitzgerald per se, except what I saw in Midnight in Paris.

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  2. Sad story. The Fitzgeralds must be two of the most tragic figures in American literature.

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  3. Whoa nice review! Tender is the Night seems to take that view as well, of a man burdened by a mentally ill wife. I still can't get enough of this couple. Amazing that O'Nan is able to capture LA and the times & F. Scott so well. I'd like to tear into it, but still it might not be enough ...

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    1. Have you read The Last Tycoon? This book made me want to.

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    2. No. I haven't read it yet. I'll have to put it on my radar for sometime this year, especially since I knew Irving Thalberg's daughter Katharine -- she was the bookstore owner I worked for. Apparently the novel's character Monroe Stahr was modeled after Irving Thalberg, the the co-creator of MGM.

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    3. I haven't read it either. What bookstore and where?

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    4. Oh the bookstore was in Aspen, Colorado, called Explore Booksellers. Unfortunately it had to be sold when Katherine Thalberg passed away in 2006. It's still there but different owners. That place meant everything to her.

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    5. Aspen is a great town!

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  4. Hello dear Judy! Fitzgerald and Zelda have my heart... I read many novels and also bio based in their "chaotic and exuberant life." Zelda has always fascinated me.... Thank you for this fabulous book review, I definitely want to read this one ;-)

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    1. Excellent. I hope you enjoy it!

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