Two of my most recent reads have been pieces of historical fiction from the perspective of the wives of acclaimed men: Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler and The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin.
While neither is the kind of novel that will keep you awake at night from suspense, they both offer a rare glimpse into the lives of the women ‘behind’ two of America’s most famous – or shall I say infamous – men.
Although the works are largely fictional, both authors ensure that they completed endless amounts of research so that the facts are correct – it’s the emotional side that they embellish. It’s interesting to try to figure out which circumstances are imagined and which truly happened the way they are depicted in the novels.
I have always been intrigued by the excess of the 1920’s and beyond – the ‘jazz age,’ as F. Scott Fitzgerald coined it. Writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway immortalized the time period through their novels, but we don’t often think much about their personal lives. Just like Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife did for Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s wife, Z imagines what life would’ve been like behind the scenes for Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda. The story reveals the demons that both Scott and Zelda battled throughout their lives together. A question is posed throughout the novel: did Zelda ruin Scott or save him?
Zelda reveals, “trouble has lots of forms. There’s financial trouble and marital trouble, there’s trouble with friends and trouble with landlords and trouble with liquor and trouble with the law. Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out – become expert at some of it, even, so much so that I’ve come to wonder whether artists in particular seek out hard times the way flowers turn their faces toward the sun.”
As can be said about a large portion of creative minds, Scott’s posthumous fame was preempted by years and years of struggle. Z leaves no dark stone unturned. Fitzgerald “had spent his life building what he’d seen as an impressive tower of stone and brick, and woken up to find it was only a little house of cards, sent tumbling now by the wind.”
I read The Aviator’s Wife because of how much I had enjoyed The Paris Wife a few years back. While the two are written by different authors, the novels are written in the same vein. The Aviator’s Wife follows the relationship of legendary American pilot Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. While I knew who Charles was and I knew something had happened to their son, that was about the extent of my knowledge prior to reading this book. Just like the aforementioned novels, this one reveals the darker, more personal side of the so-called American hero’s life and marriage.
Anne’s mother warns her daughter in the novel: “You need to stop looking for heroes, Anne. Only the weak need heroes… and heroes need those around them to remain weak.” Anne herself discovers that “marriage breeds its own special brand of loneliness” and cruelty, especially when that marriage is to an American hero.
Now that I’ve essentially written a novel of my own, go pick up these two eye-opening books. Authors Fowler and Benjamin gave these strong women voices where they had none – and that is a beautiful thing.