Around late last November I was in my parent’s garage looking for a bucket to clean my car with, but was side-tracked by a stack of books sitting in a cardboard box. Anytime I’m near books I have a strong urge to hold them, look at the covers, flip through the pages, read the synopsis, and possibly add them to my reading list. When I sifted through this particular stack of books, I discovered four novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald: This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon. These are older editions published in the 1960s with sturdy, hard-bound covers and pages yellow with age and smelling like exotic spices. I forgot about my car and took these books up to my room to put on my nightstand to read. I’ve taught Gatsby in my English classes before and it’s always a joyous occasion because this story is so well-written and accessible. I spent the next three months reading this set of novels in the order they were published and came away with a greater appreciation of Fitzgerald’s style and learning that not everything he wrote excites me as much as Gatsby.
First of all, This Side of Paradise, which is Fitzgerald’s first novel, is about a young man from a wealthy family who goes to Princeton University and dabbles in literature while observing and commenting on the lives of post-World War I youth in America. For me, the novel often feels scattered and was a hard for me to get into because of Amory Blane’s arrogant, detached, and sometimes whiny personality. However, as I got further along, I started to appreciate the artistry behind the words and the insightful commentary on the lost generation of the 1920s. You can see ideas and characters that will become more focused and disciplined in his next novel, The Great Gatsby, which is by far a stronger novel. This one is worth a read if you are interested seeing how Fitzgerald’s writing evolved.
The second book I read was, of course, The Great Gatsby. This book is always a joy to read because of the interesting characters, well-developed plot, beautifully described setting, and the powerfully tragic ending.
The third book I read was Tender is the Night. This book is Fitzgerald’s most personal because it is based on his own struggles with alcoholism and his complicated marriage with his wife Zelda, who suffered from mental health issues. It’s about a psychologist who has an affair with an 18-year old actress in the French Riviera while his wife sits in a mental hospital he runs. As he pursues this affair, his life gradually goes into a downward spiral and turns him into an alcoholic. Many critics consider this his “best” novel, but this didn’t work for me because of the dense language, muddied plot, and disappointing ending. Halfway through the book I had to go online and read a synopsis to better understand what was going on and to try to appreciate the underlying premise of the book. I usually don’t do that when I read a book because I want to have that joy of discovery on my own, but this book became more of an endurance test. It was a chore to read and my least favorite of the four novels. However, my favorite part is when the protagonist, Dick, has an epic, drunken meltdown in the streets of Rome. He refuses to pay the full fare for a cab ride back to his hotel and gets into a fight with all of these Italian cab drivers, who drag him to a local police station. Dick is o drunk that he swings at a police officer and gets the crap beaten out of him before being hurled into a jail cell. I do not feel a ton of sympathy for Dick’s privileged behavior, so reading that passage was cathartic.
The final book I read in this set was The Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel is about the tragic life of Hollywood movie executive Monroe Stahr, who runs his film studio like a 19th century railroad tycoon while culture and politics threaten to change it forever. Stahr also tries to have a relationship with a woman who reminds him of his dead wife, but later discovers it is doomed to fail even though he can’t stop loving this woman. Fitzgerald tries to recapture the magic of The Great Gatsby in this novel, which made me sad knowing that he never got the chance to finish what could have been another great novel depicting an important part of history that influenced American life and culture. My copy of the book has a section at the end that includes all of Fitzgerald’s notes, outlines, and letters to editors showing what he had planned, which added to my enjoyment because I got to read his writing process and rationale behind the story.
Although I was disappointed by two of the four books, I’m still glad I made the time to read these novels. I believe I learned more about a classic American author and his works and developed a greater appreciation for his style.