I really struggled with this latest Jazz Age January pick. As this story was supposed to be a semi-autobiographical account of F. Scott Fiztgerald’s relationship with his wife Zelda, I was expecting a little more depth of character in this novel. What I found instead was a train wreck that I couldn’t wait to see the end of and where I had no invested interest in any of the characters on board.
In 1921 F. Scott Fitzgerald was twenty-five and heralded as the most promising writer of his generation, owing to the success of his first novel This Side of Paradise. Recently married to the girl of his dreams, the former Zelda Sayre, Fitzgerald built upon his sudden prosperity with The Beautiful and the Damned, a cautionary tale of reckless ambition and squandered talent set amid the glitter of Jazz Age New York.
The novel chronicles the relationship of Anthony Patch, a Harvard-educated, aspiring writer, and his beautiful young wife, Gloria. While they wait for Anthony’s grandfather to die and pass his millions on to them, the young couple enjoys an endless string of parties, traveling, and extravagance. Beginning with the pop and fizz of life itself, The Beautiful and the Damned quickly evolves into a scathing chronicle of a dying marriage and a hedonistic society in which beauty is all too fleeting.
A fierce parable about the illusory quality of dreams, the intractable nature of reality, and the ruin wrought by time, The Beautiful and the Damned eerily anticipates the dissipation and decline that would come to the Fitzgeralds themselves before the decade had run its course. (Plot Summary from Barnes and Noble.)
It has all the elements of a tragedy, yet for me to feel anything for the characters, to want to care anything for their fates, to weep over their sorrows, I have to care that bad things happen to them. However, these characters are so incredibly self-absorbed and unsympathetic that I just don’t care. When they have the power to alleviate their own suffering, but are just too lazy to do anything about it, I have no compassion.
She shook her head and her eyes wandered back to the dancers as she answered:
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about – what you should do, or what anybody should do.”
She confused him and hindered the flow of his ideas. Self-expression had never seemed at once so desirable and so impossible.
“Well,” he admitted apologetically, “neither do I, of course, but -”
“I just think of people,” she continued, “Whether they seem right where they are and fit into the picture. I don’t mind if they don’t do anything. I don’t see why they should; in fact it always astonishes me when anybody does anything.”
“You don’t want to do anything?”
“I want to sleep.”
For a second he was startled, almost as though she had meant this literally.
“Sort of. I want to just be lazy and I want some of the people around me to be doing things, because that makes me feel comfortable and safe – and I want some of them to be doing nothing at all, because they can be graceful and companionable for me. But I never want to change for people or get excited over them.”
“You’re a quaint little determinist,” laughed Anthony. “It’s your world, isn’t it?”
“Well -” she said with a quick upward glance, “isn’t it? As long as I’m – young.”
And believe it or not, this is the beginning of true love. Blech! No wonder it self-implodes in a hideous way. At one point a few years down the road when the two have had a row, the whole scene is described as a triumph of lethargy. That’s how I felt about this entire story. After reading it, I felt emotionally drained, and not in a good way. Not my favorite read from this event. I must read another right away.