Honestly, I’ve about had it up to here with ”wife” novels. First there was a book about Hemingway’s wife. Then Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife. And now — with the arrival of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby — there’s a little landslide of novels about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda. There’s something morbid, and vaguely inhumane, about exhuming this woman just to see her suffer again. But yes, there’s also something fascinating about this blond-bobbed anti-wife who couldn’t cook or clean, the moth fluttering to the flame as she and Scott skittered through France, Hollywood, and New York until her brittle mania spilled over into mental illness.
Unfortunately, you’ll find only glimpses of Zelda in these novels. In the best of the bunch — Therese Anne Fowler’s Z — she feels relatable as a put-upon wife, but her firecracker, flapper-muse persona fades into the background. Erika Robuck’s Call Me Zelda, which begins in 1932 as Zelda is checking into a psychiatric hospital, has a mix of real and fictional characters, creating a palpable dissonance. And R. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools, which takes place during a cruise the couple took to Cuba in ’39, is lyrical and acute, but focuses on the dark side of the Fitzgerald legacy: By then, Scott was a drunkard and Zelda was completely out of her mind.
If you want to find the Zelda whom Scott loved, pick up Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, the story of a glamorous couple, the Divers, trapped in a doomed marriage. (”We can’t go on like this — or can we?… Some of the time I think it’s my fault? I’ve ruined you,” Nicole Diver says at one point.) Or read Nancy Milford’s splendid biography Zelda, published in 1970. The book traces her fiery trajectory from her Southern childhood and her years as ”the most spectacular belle Montgomery would ever know” through her wild marriage, when her antics shocked literary Manhattan: ”Dorothy Parker never forgot meeting Zelda for the first time — astride the hood of a taxi with Scott perched upon the roof.” Milford shows how the Fitzgeralds’ combustible marriage — and Zelda’s eventual institutionalization — fueled Scott’s fiction, but she also gives her the dignity of being a woman in full, and not just somebody’s character.