Wednesday, January 7, 2015

West of Sunset

West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan
Viking: 1/13/2015
eBook, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670785957
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).
My Thoughts:

West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan is a very highly recommended fictionalized account of the last years of the life of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. O'Nan brings Fritzgerald's struggles to life amid the Golden Age of Hollywood.

F. Scott Fitzgerald went to Hollywood to work as a screen writer in 1937 because he desperately needed a job. At this time Zelda, his wife, was institutionalized at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. It is well known that she struggled with mental illness for years. Their only child, daughter Scottie, was at boarding school and would be in college soon. Fitzgerald needed a way to make money and writing for Hollywood seemed like a natural way for him to earn the money he needed. His fame as a writer had waned at this point and his struggles with drinking and addictions were well known. He was determined to stop drinking, if possible, and make a living writing again. While in Hollywood he meets and starts an affair with Sheilah Graham, a much younger Hollywood gossip columnist. 

O'Nan has included many of the Hollywood writers and stars of the day when the studio system reigned supreme. Some of the notable figures include, naming a few: Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Benchley, Joan Crawford, Vivien Leigh, Alan Campbell, and Dorothy Parker.  Fitzgerald is often at the mercy of thoughtless studio lackeys as he is asked to fix scripts or is bumped off of one project and put on another at a moment's notice. The whole time he struggles with his alcoholism, guilt over Zelda's condition, and concern for Scottie. This is a fully realized and researched glimpse into a sad, troubled time of Fitzgerald's life. His earlier fame has ended and he is left struggling, drunk, powerless, and often anonymous. 

The writing brilliantly and skillfully captures the life and struggles of Fitzgerald in this well researched fictionalized account. I am a fan of all of O'Nan's writing, but the first book I read by him was nonfiction, The Circus Fire, so I was eagerly anticipating what he would do with the final years of Fitzgerald's life.

O'Nan writes about why he chose to write about this time in Fitzgerald's life:
"Despite our view of him as a literary giant and dashing Gatsby, Fitzgerald was an outsider–a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at private school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner in the West. I’d thought of him in Hollywood as a legendary figure in a legendary place, yet the more I read, the more he struck me as someone with limited resources trying to hold together a world that’s flying apart, if not gone already. Someone who keeps working and hoping, knowing it might not be enough. And I thought: that’s who you write about.
How does it feel to be you? Unknowable, of course, but fiction, better than any other medium, comes closest to satisfying our curiosity."

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Viking for review purposes.

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