West of Sunset
By Stewart O’Nan
(Viking Adult, Hardcover, 9780670785957, January 13, 2015, 304pp.)
The Short of It:
The glitter and sparkle of the Jazz Age is not present in this novel. Instead, we are given the gritty bits of a struggling F. Scott Fitzgerald as he tries to make it in Hollywood while, poor Zelda languishes away in a sanitarium.
The Rest of It:
The Great Gatsby is a novel that I love more and more as time passes, but I was not a fan of it when I first read it. Turns out, many did not care for Gatsby when it was first released. Written in 1925,the book did not sell well and was widely unpopular with many. Unable to match the success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald found himself if a bit of a predicament. Zelda, his wife, was losing her mind and living full-time in a sanitarium and his daughter, Scottie, was attending a rather expensive boarding school which frankly, he could not afford. To make ends meet, he moves to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter for MGM. West of Sunset is a fictionalized account of his life in Hollywood and his long-time affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.
I should tell you that this book has received very mixed reviews but I adored it. I knew little about Fitzgerald’s life in Hollywood and I found it all very fascinating to read about. Far from being a Golden Boy, he struggled to turn out quality work and many of his film projects were shelved but his daily interactions, his attempt to participate actively in an affair with Graham while taking care of his wife and daughter, wore him down quickly.
As in real life, the Fitzgerald we read about in West of Sunset is weak and chronically ill and being an alcoholic doesn’t help matters. Graham is constantly coming to his aid to nurse him back to health. The long weekends at the beach house, spent wiping his brow and tending to his every need. As a reader, you can’t help but wonder why a successful woman like Graham puts up with it, but love is a funny thing and although the falls from grace continue to plague them, she remains in his corner through all of it.
In between the long periods of illness, there is a lot of writing and lunches with Hollywood execs and interactions with big stars like Joan Crawford. The Hollywood that O’Nan writes about is the old Hollywood that’s we’ve all come to know. There is glamour, but not the type of glamour Fitzgerald participates in or contributes to. His world is colored by his need for drink which lends a darkness to an otherwise exciting time.
I found myself fascinated with all of it. After finishing the book, I wanted to re-read Gatsby or pick-up one of his other books. I am a big fan of O’Nan’s work and West of Sunset is no exception. Just know going in, that it’s not the glittery, feel-good book that you might expect from its cover.
Source: Sent to me by the publisher via Edelweiss.
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