In his final, booze-addled years, F. Scott Fitzgerald tries his hand at Hollywood screenwriting, socializing with a colorful cast of characters that includes Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Parker, Helen Hayes and Marlene Dietrich, while his troubled wife, Zelda, languishes in a North Carolina asylum.
In contrast to a recent spate of historical novels written from the perspective of Zelda (Z by Therese Anne Fowler; Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck; both 2013), O’Nan (The Odds, 2012, etc.) places Scott back at center stage, with a sympathetic portrayal of a troubled genius, a kind but deeply flawed man trying to stay on the wagon while keeping the peace between his unstable wife and their teenage daughter. After a span of nearly 20 years, Fitzgerald comes back into contact with his first love, the rich, unattainable Ginevra, clearly his model for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, all while falling into an intense love affair with Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist many years his junior. Sheilah is a fascinating character in her own right, a wholly self-invented heroine who could have stepped out of the pages of one of Fitzgerald’s own novels. O’Nan has masterfully re-created the feel and ambience of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1930s, where Fitzgerald is hired to doctor scripts that might never see the light of day and frequently finds himself defenseless against overweening producers and back-stabbing co-writers. Meanwhile, Zelda remains at the mercy of the all-powerful Dr. Carroll, existing at the center of an emotional tug of war between Scott and his disapproving mother-in-law.
O’Nan has crafted an insightful glimpse into a sad period in Fitzgerald’s life, as he fades into poverty, drunkenness and anonymity among a cast of notables, after his and Zelda’s reign as America’s literary golden couple and before his resurgence into universal acclaim.