Book Reviews

Book Review: West of Sunset

The last couple years, I seemed to have found myself spending a lot of time with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and historical fiction written around their grandiose rises and falls from grace. It started when Leo and the gang redid Gatsby the movie (which left me wanting)–I reread the book because it had been years. I might have enjoyed the movie more had I not done that, but whatever.

Then I went into a tirade on myself for never having read Hemingway. I’ve been to the bar he used to frequent in Aruba… the sole point of going was because he wrote there, and I hadn’t read his books.

So I started with The Sun Also Rises and followed it with The Paris Wife, the historical fiction written from his first wife’s perspective about their life in Paris and the writing of that very novel. Then came A Moveable Feast because I had to get Hemingway’s take on the whole situation, but that left me feeling more sad than anything because the writer from his first novel was a shell of his former self. I don’t know if it was the electroshock therapy or if it was because the 3rd wife had a hand in the editing/publishing process because it was released posthumously, but it wasn’t the same guy.

So this go around I found myself dying to know what might have happened with Fitzgerald’s last years–his epic fall from fame and fortune, peddling dialogue for movies that almost always got cut, shelved, or rewritten. How did such genius die so young (booze and pills surely didn’t help) and as such a disgrace (in his eyes)?

O’Nan’s take on Fitzgerald’s self sabotage made for a compelling story. Does life imitate art or does art manifest itself in life? In many ways, the character that made him famous also proved to be the storyline Fitzgerald himself followed, whether he meant to or not. The sticking point in Gatsby was that he tried to reach above his station, got there, so the universe had to somehow balance itself and bring him back down to where he belonged. O’Nan’s version of Fitzgerald makes me believe he thought that was a universal truth, so despite having an amazing life, working hard for it, being talented, he somehow still only saw himself as the Midwesterner on scholarship to Princeton so he had to act in ways that brought him back to where he thought he should be.

Zelda is in a mental hospital, drugged and a shadow of her former self. Their marriage is in name only and has been for a while, but of course Fitzgerald torments himself with the idea that one they might be able to live together. Scottie, their daughter is in boarding school, then Vassar, then Princeton just like dear old dad, but he rarely sees her, and when they do spend time together it’s usually him asking her to be nice to her mother who is not so nice to Scottie.

Fitzgerald finds himself in Hollywood, this time practically begging for work (repeatedly) and knowing that the last time he’d been through that scene, he’d been on top and now he was merely hoping for enough scraps to keep paying for Zelda’s care and Scottie’s schooling.

Of course, I’m a sucker for older Hollywood, too, so the mentions of Bogey, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, even briefly Lucille Ball, and many more intrigued me. They were weaved in carefully to not come across like blatant name dropping. Fitzgerald mingled with so many greats before they were great… again. I could picture the parties, the absurdity of it all, and Fitzgerald’s constant feeling out-of-place, despite being 100% in his element. The conflict of it was done well.

And the love affair with Sheilah Graham–starts off filled with guilt; intense and pursued completely anyway. He creates ways to fall from the pedestal she was willing to put him on over and over and over again. He drives her away, but then pulls her back in when he gets very sick. Again, he becomes of shadow of his already sad shadow. Sheilah takes care of him to the bitter end more out of pity than love at that point. How can a decent person leave him to die alone, because whether she admitted it out loud, she knew that’s where it was going.

Overall, you know how the story ends because Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at 44. Definitely far too young, but at the same time a very linear result of his fame and self perceived invisibility. It seems only fitting that O’Nan takes the approach that Fitzgerald would get in his own way; would ultimately be responsible for his early death; and would struggle to see the parallels unfolding in his life to that of his most famous character.

He dies thinking he can still dig himself out of it all. His end is sad, lonely, and so full of promise just wasted. What if he hadn’t been so greedy? What if he had been able to let go and accept his new reality? What if he’d spent less time festering over guilt that wasn’t necessarily his?

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