“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
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).
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.)