Book Review: West of Sunset

west of sunset

“As much as he might protest, at heart it was true. To save himself, he’d killed what was once best in him, and to his shame discovered he’d saved nothing.” Stewart O’Nan, WEST OF SUNSET

Publisher Synopsis:

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 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 Recommendation:

I admit to being Fitzgerald obsessed, but that often works against novels I read on people I admire or who I know a lot about. That was not the case with WEST OF SUNSET.

From its start, when Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald meet for an outing from her asylum in North Carolina, the novel creates a tender, sympathetic portrait of two thoroughly wrung out and exhausted people. The reader watches this couple who, in spite of their dizzying highs and crushing lows, could be like any other couple who have weathered years of love and heartbreak. But as the focus moves to Scott, one begins to understand the Gatsby-esque capacity he had for hope that makes him extraordinary.

In a desperate attempt to keep his wife in the best institution possible and his daughter in the best school possible, Scott travels to Hollywood to join the legions of writers hoping for credit in a screenplay. O’Nan seamlessly weaves in memories and letters, establishing a Fitzgerald so enamored with his youth and his past that he places the burden of it on the shoulders of gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham. As their relationship progresses, we see the gradual regression of a man who has taxed his body and soul beyond measure.

Through O’Nan’s sensitive and restrained portrayal of Scott, I have a new understanding of Scott’s personal hell, and how black-outs and benders are truly liked skipped heartbeats in the lives of alcoholics. The depiction of the false and changeable illusion of Hollywood dreams can be seen in the opulent sets and the capricious starts and stops to productions. The beauty of the natural landscape, however, and the warmth of Sheilah and others like her, create a balance for the reader.

There are many novels written about famous people, and one of the pitfalls is a possibility of the narrative to lapse into biographical telling. O’Nan never does this. Because of his graceful writing and well-drawn characters, WEST OF SUNSET could be about the Fitzgeralds or anyone. It is a masterpiece worthy of a screenplay, worthy of its esteemed subjects, and destined to become a classic. I give WEST OF SUNSET my highest recommendation.

I have a copy of the novel to give away. Please comment below by Wednesday, January 21st, 9 PM ET, with your favorite novel about or by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and be sure to share on social media. (US residents only, please.)

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: West of Sunset

  1. I’ve always loved The Great Gatsby and am really looking forward to reading this to get a peek into the mind of the writer after all the fame and adoration starts to fade (that must be so hard for someone who has basked in the glow for so long!). Great review, thank you!

  2. Scott Rossi says:

    I too love “The Great Gatsby”, but one of my all-time favorite books by Scott Fitzgerald is the amazingly romantic love letters of Scott and Zelda in a compilation of their letters titled, “Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda”, with an introduction by their granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan.

  3. lomaurice says:

    You know I am in the middle of reading WEST OF SUNSET. I was thrilled to read your review. You have so beautifully captured this. It is an entirely new story, and O’nan has done a bang-up job with it. I am savoring it.

  4. Suzy says:

    I Love The Great Gatsby. I’d read it in high school and didn’t think much of it. When the new movie with Leonardo DiCaprio came out recently, I decided I was going to reread the book before seeing the movie. It was so different than what I’d read as a teen. So sad and tragic. I guess we just don’t really get or appreciate the classics until we reread them as an adult.

  5. Bonnie K. says:

    The Great Gatsby is my favorite of his. A learned a little more about them from reading The Paris Wife. I really find their love story to be tragic. I hope to read more about them during their down time and truly see them as ordinary people from reading West of Sunset.

  6. erikarobuck says:

    Thank you for your comments, everyone. If you enjoy reading the Fitzgeralds in fiction, I also recommend R. Clifton Spargo’s BEAUTIFUL FOOLS.

  7. Rhonda says:

    The Great Gatsby swept me away transported me intoa world I only could imagine,first read I was in high school.

  8. Julie says:

    Definitely going to buy this one.

  9. Laurice says:

    I would love to read this!

  10. Melissa Buck says:

    I love The Great Gatsby and would love to read this book! My favorite book involving him, honestly, is Call Me Zelda, it drew me in and made me want to read more by both authors.

  11. Tender is the Night is my favorite Fitzgerald novel; while I read Gatsby in high school and liked it, I didn’t have the “English major eye for language” until my first American Literature course in college. That’s where I read Tender is the Night, and fell in love with 1920s fiction and Fitzgerald!

  12. erikarobuck says:

    Thank you all for your comments and shares! The winner is Suzy!! Congratulations. I hope you enjoy it!

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