|West of Sunset
4 / 5
"That spring he holed up in the Smokies, in a tired resort hotel by the asylum so he could be closer to her."
A “rich, sometimes heartbreaking” (Dennis Lehane) novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood
In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to a mental asylum and his finances in ruins, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood. By December 1940, he would be dead of a heart attack.
Those last three years of Fitzgerald’s life, often obscured by the legend of his earlier Jazz Age glamour, are the focus of Stewart O’Nan’s gorgeously and gracefully written novel. With flashbacks to key moments from Fitzgerald’s past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on The Last Tycoon, and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and daughter, Scottie.
Fitzgerald’s orbit of literary fame and the Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel’s romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. A sympathetic and deeply personal portrait of a flawed man who never gave up in the end, even as his every wish and hope seemed thwarted, West of Sunset confirms O’Nan as “possibly our best working novelist” (Salon).
I don't know why I keep ending up reading books about F. Scott Fitzgerald, even though the dude is not my favorite author. I am not a huge fan of The Great Gatsby or anything (although I did love The Beautiful and Damned!). I suppose I am just fascinated by the man's roller coaster of a life story. Especially for being such a cherished American author. But the time during which he lived allowed him to taste fame and fortune, yet also destitution and despair (and ordinariness).
Plus, there's the whole Stuart O'Nan thing. I thought I had read more of this amazing author, but apparently I have to jump on that bandwagon more often! I remember loving reading The Circus Fire when I was a teenager; of course, it was quite intriguing because it was about Hartford, the capital of my home state. And this book, too, was so well written. I think Salon is onto something there when they brand O'Nan with the title of "possibly our best working novelist" today. Granted, I have many other favorites who I think are equivalent in talent. But O'Nan is just so good.
What I think really hooked me into this book once I'd started it was that it was almost the perfect follow-up piece for Z by Therese Anne Fowler, which I read last August. Opening West of Sunset felt like picking up the thread of an old friend's storyline, albeit from a different perspective. (Apparently for a true Fitzgerald-phile, there are a lot of books about the passionate and strained love between the two; there is also Zelda's novel as well as the letters the two exchanged. Phew! One could read - or watch - on this subject indefinitely!)
In any case, the story drew me back in like I was reading a sequel, and I was fascinated to see how the last several years of the Fitzgeralds' marriage played out. I had not known about Sheilah Graham, Scott's Hollywood lover. I hadn't known that he tried so hard to juggle his budding romance with taking care of his unstable wife, and struggled dearly between both. I hadn't known he and Humphrey Bogart were such good friends! I was intrigued by the glamour and glitz of 1930s Hollywood, with all of its caricature-like characters.
I also loved learning that (how did I not know this?!) Scottie Fitzgerald attended Vassar, at the urging and encouragement of her father. (Recently, too, her papers were donated to the school - I am eager to explore the collection!) What's even niftier is she also attended the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, CT, which is just a town away from where AmberBug & I both grew up!
So, clearly, I felt quite a connection to this book, in so many different ways. Luckily, it did not disappoint my high hopes: O'Nan wrote the struggled of Scott intimately and sympathetically: the man and his entire life had tumbled from apex into chasm, and he kept trying to find himself a foothold from which to push his way back out. He was humbled in his own time, and unlucky enough not to see the honor and recognition we now give such a great author. He is fortunate, however, that we as a country mostly manage to overlook his rough time in California at the end of his life, when he worked against deadlines to doctor terrible movie scripts just to pay his debt, when he had to step carefully around his wife and daughter (and force these remnants of their family together), when he fell in love and engaged in an affair with someone who wasn't his wife. These were his low times, and unfortunately he never managed to find a way out. O'Nan's novel was tragic and heartbreaking. But oh so good.
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