Friday, October 31, 2008

Book Review: Gatsby's Girl

Title: Gatsby's Girl
Author: Caroline Preston
Genre: Historical Fiction (1920's-1950's)
Rating: B+

Book Summary (from the back cover): Before he wrote some of the twentieth century's greatest fiction, before he married Zelda, F. Scott Fitzgerald loved Ginevra, a fickle young Chicago socialite he met during a winter break from Princeton. But Ginevra threw over the soon-to-be-famous novelist, and the rest is literary history. Ginevra would be the model for many of Fitzgerald's coolly fascinating but unattainable heroines, including the elusive object of Jay Gatsby's unrequited love, Daisy Buchanan.

... Caroline Preston imagines what life might have been like for Fitzgerald's first love, following Ginevra from her gilded youth as the daughter of a tycoon through disillusioned marriage and motherhood. ...Gatsby's Girl deftly explores the relationship between a famous author and his muse.

Review: I think I need to start this review off with a confession. This book was selected as the November book club selection and I tend to read my book club books slowly, reading a set number of pages per day so that I've given sufficient time to understanding the story and that it's fresh in my mind when it's time to discuss it. I should have started this book on Tuesday and read 10 pages per day, I picked it up last night (Thursday), fully intended to read only 30 pages to get caught up to where I needed to be; however, I could not stop reading and read the whole book straight through yesterday, staying up until 3:00 a.m. (not something that this old bag does too often). Seriously, the book is that good. I cried at the end.

So, let's get to it... why was this book so great? Well, Preston herself says it best when she says, while describing the way that F.Scott Fitzgerald writes letters to Ginevra, "This is what a true writer does, I decided. Makes real life better than it is," (38). I have always kind of had a crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald, mostly because I had a small amount of passing knowledge that his books all tended to be somewhat semi-autobiographical, and I fancied that he looked like a young Robert Redford who played Jay Gatsby in the excellent movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby. However, I had only read The Great Gatsby once (my sophomore year in high school as required reading) and only with a passing interest--I tended more to like the romanticized idea of Fitzgerald as a writer that I had created in my head better than any of his actual writing (because I just hadn't invested the time to read it). I've got a copy of This Side of Paradise, his first novel, on my book shelf that I've been intending to read for some time, but hadn't gotten around to it. All that to say that Preston writes about the life and loves of F. Scott Fitzgerald with such heart-breaking beauty that I'm even more enamored with this self-destructive author than I had been prior to reading her book and I have purposed within myself to read the entire Fitzgerald bibliography within 12 months.

Here's how she does it: Preston takes relatively well known facts about the relationship between Fitzgerald and Ginevra King (the real-life muse who inspired Fitzgerald), stays ridiculously faithful to them (only changing the timeline and some minor elements for the purposes of pacing) and adding one or two minor story lines that flesh out the character of Ginevra (seemingly). But she goes beyond just a retelling of this well-known romantic (and chaste) fling to infuse it with the passion and sadness that is the essence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It appears that she tries to romanticize Ginevra, making her feelings in later life more akin to Scott's as she is forlorn over the life she has made for herself, when in reality it seems that Ginevra didn't ever regret how badly she had treated Fitzgerald.

There are some really great themes in this book that shine through, most notably being that falling in love with the idea of a person is much easier than accepting them for who they truly are with all of their faults (although this is always futile and definitely leads to disappointment). This is kind of an irony because Preston creates her fictionalized versions of real-life people so beautifully that you can't help but fall in love with her idealized caricatures, often forgetting that they are truly human, it's such a catch-22.

The other significant theme is that, rather than finding your self actualization by living vicariously through the successes and failures of others (seen in contemporary society by our culture's absolute hunger for celebrity gossip), one should find their happiness in personal fulfillment, being satisfied in their life and the personal story they have created based on who they've chosen to love and the experiences they have personally taken. It's a great lesson and something that I've really been thinking about a lot lately (see my related post about a similar existential moment here, skip to point #2 in this post), and loved that this book brought this up again.

I only gave this book a B+ rating for a couple of perceived flaws. First, there are incredibly redeeming characters in the book that don't get the treatment that they deserve--granted, Preston might not have been able to know how to bring Ginevra's roommate Marie (the individual who introduces the ill-fated couple) into the story in a more significant way, but it could have really helped because Marie was the only person in F. Scott Fitzgerald's life who actually seemed to understand his emotions. Marie could have actually changed the course of history (at least in this book) if she had been a more central and influential character. This also happens with a couple of other characters, such as Ginevra's sister and brother-in-law, but it seems that Preston was trying to remain painstakingly faithful to actual history, and didn't allow herself to meddle with these characters.

This brings me to my second flaw: the only significant deviation (as far as I could tell) that Preston takes from reality is that she creates an Oedipal complex between Ginevra's second son, Avery, and Ginevra; however, she never talks about how this weird relationship was created (actually Ginevra seemed like a good mother who was finally able to find fulfillment in her relationship with her husband and loved her children). Rather than see their relationship develop and the dysfunction blossom, Preston drops this plot bomb, which comes out of nowhere, and expects us to just accept it. What's unfortunate is that it makes me wonder if this is telling of Preston's ability to develop plot (I haven't read any of her other works, so I wouldn't really know), but it just seems suspect that the one big fictional thing she did is not done well.

However, all is not lost. As I said earlier, I cried at the end. Check out this passage where F. Scott Fitzgerald's daughter (Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald Lanahan) is explaining to Ginevra (after Scott's death) why Scott would have had Ginevra's letters that she wrote during their brief tryst typed and bound together:
"I think Daddy was trying to remember himself. When things got bad in his life, when Mummy was sick and he couldn't finish Tender is the Night and he was drinking too much, he just wanted to remember what it felt like to be nineteen, in love with a girl," (299).

So heart-breaking and tragic. I had invested so much in coming to love this misunderstood literary genius (granted, I had invested this over the course of six hours of rabid reading and might have been slightly delirious at the late hour), but I was so saddened that he was still holding onto that experience 20 years later for hope and meaning in his life.

All that to say, if you like anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, you'll probably love this book. It's a great (and in my case, a quick) read.


The Reader's Quill said...

I'll have to pick this up. Good review as usual! :)


Heather said...

Hope you enjoy it, it really was an entertaining story with some interesting themes.

Jamie Moore said...

By the way, I think I'm going to join you on your modern classics challenge too- I don't know how long I have to read them or how many I should read but I found some good ones to look at- You've inspired me to read more, thanks girl!