Culture Street

Books

West of Sunset by Stewart O'Nan

On July 31, 2015

By Sophia Whitfield

West of Sunset is an intimate look at the last three years of legendary American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

With his glory days behind him, Fitzgerald sinks into ill health and alcoholism. The Roaring Twenties and Jazz Age now behind him, Fitzgerald finds himself struggling to pay boarding fees for his only daughter Scottie’s exclusive school. Added to this is the financial strain that comes with paying the bills for the hospital his mentally ill wife Zelda now calls home.

In order to cover costs Fitzgerald sells himself to Hollywood where he works on dreary unknown material such as ‘A Yank at Oxford’.

O’Nan deftly weaves Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, all acquaintances of Fitzgeralds, into his story creating a colourful picture of Hollywood.

Unable to resist, Fitzgerald forms a relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham who is hiding her working class background from the Hollywood set. Despite his passion for Graham, Hemingway is hampered by guilt. He is still desperate to remain a family and with the hospitals dispensation takes Zelda on trips, sometimes with daughter Scottie, in a bid to retain his family unit. After visiting Zelda he routinely sinks into alcoholism.

It is Zelda who comes to life in O’Nan’s retelling. Through Fitzgerald’s eye we see the change in her appearance – the weight gain, the broken tooth, the fall from their heady days as a couple. Fitzgerald wants to be a family but is then embarrassed by her appearance. One of the best scenes is the book is set on a train when Fitzgerald watches Zelda dressing and then walks through the train with his family in tow wondering if people are looking at them, Zelda’s mismatched appearance arresting unwanted glances from fellow passengers. Fitzgerald now seems to be grappling with his own fractured love story not unlike those he wrote about.

O’Nan charts Fitzgerald’s heartbreaking decline with finesse. Put aside the weekend to lose yourself in this book.

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