West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan
Pub. Date: January 13, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley + finished copy via publisher (Thank you, VIKING!!)
Summary: 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.
Genre: Literary Fiction, Biographical Fiction
Recommended for: fans of intense research with an interest in Fitzgerald’s later life and old school Hollywood
Oh, hi there. Perhaps you’ve noticed this blog’s name: The Pretty Good Gatsby. Yep. In a surprise to everyone I’m sure, I adore Fitzgerald’s works. SHOCK, I know. So when I heard about a new book detailing his final years spent in Hollywood (AND being published by Viking) I was instantly sold. To be honest, I know very little about his later life, his final few years, and was heartbroken at just how sad they were. Gone were the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. Here we have a middle-aged writer, struggling to hold down a job and pay his bills.
With his wife Zelda in an asylum (always hoping that today will be the day her doctors allow her to go home) and his daughter Scottie starting college, F. Scott Fitzgerald heads out west, out to Hollywood where he’ll try his hand at writing scripts. Initially, things look great: he’s getting work done, he’s being paid, and he’s got a novel in the works. Then the project he’s working on goes bust, new writers are brought in, and he finds himself falling down a seemingly endless hole. In the beginning it’s always promising: he’ll write some scenes and work on re-writes from the director’s notes (more often than not this turns into a total upheaval of Fitzgerald’s original script). Then, out of nowhere, he’ll find he’s been replaced by a different writer. Rinse, repeat.
While in Hollywood, Fitzgerald meets – and begins a relationship with – Sheilah Graham, a gossip columnist. The two carry on their relationship (although Fitzgerald is still married to Zelda) throughout his years in Hollywood (in the end Sheilah takes on more of a caretaker role than that of a girlfriend) and it’s in her apartment that he ultimately has a fatal heart attack.
Today Fitzgerald is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers, not just of the 20th Century, but ever. Period. During his life, however, his novels simply weren’t highly regarded. Sure, they sold, but they weren’t the defining works of literature that they are today. It’s heartbreaking how authors (or painters, musicians, etc etc) don’t receive the recognition they deserve until long after their death. Throughout the novel I kept thinking of another favorite writer: Poe. They had very parallel lives: heavy – heavy drinking, a constant struggle to make money, genius that wasn’t celebrated until after their death.
Although West of Sunset was a bit of a downer (okay, so maybe more than a bit), it wasn’t all sad. Dorothy Parker plays a fairly huge role in this novel and was always ready with a quip or snarky jab. Also, this book reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart is another large character and O’Nan doesn’t skimp on the name-dropping! Clearly you can’t have a novel about Fitzgerald without Papa himself, but I was a little disheartened to see Hemingway wasn’t around as much as I had hoped – though that’s clearly a Me issue; the novel isn’t about Hemingway, it’s about Fitzgerald, but I wanted more. There can never be enough Papa!
A few early reviews I read mentioned how dry West of Sunset felt. Personally, I didn’t share their sentiment. This novel reads like a novel, not a massive biography. Stewart O’Nan certainly did extensive research and it definitely shows, but at no point did I ever feel it was too much. I never felt like I was reading anything other than a richly detailed novel.
When all is said and done, West of Sunset tells a story that’s rarely revealed. It pulls back the shining veneer of flappers and bathtub gin and shows the end result: F. Scott Fitzgerald as an alcoholic in his 40s, making feeble attempts to gain the fame he lost. Gone are the glory days of all-night parties. Now he has a wife in an asylum, a daughter heading off to college, and no source of income. This isn’t how I’d like to remember or think of Fitzgerald, but this was one hell of a novel. Also, I had no idea he was a scriptwriter for Gone With the Wind!