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May 29, 2013

Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck

Robuck's writing evokes the melancholy state of Zelda 
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
Biographical historical fiction
Penguin NAL, May 7, 2013
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
Burton Book Review Rating: Very good, and I recommend it! 4 stars

From the author of Hemingway’s Girl comes a richly imagined tale of Zelda Fitzgerald’s love, longing, and struggle against ever-threatening insanity.
From New York to Paris, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald reigned as king and queen of the Jazz Age, but those who really knew them saw their inner turmoil.
Committed to a Baltimore psychiatric hospital in 1932, Zelda vacillates between lucidity and madness as she fights to forge an identity independent of her famous husband. She discovers a sympathetic ear in her nurse Anna Howard, who finds herself drawn into the Fitzgerald’s tumultuous lives and wonders which of them is the true genius. But in taking greater emotional risks to save Zelda, Anna may end up paying a far higher price than she ever intended.
In this thoroughly researched, deeply moving novel, Erika Robuck explores the boundaries of female friendship, the complexity of marital devotion, and the sources of both art and madness.

With all eyes on Gatsby-themed books and movies this year, Erika Robuck's tale of Zelda's manic depression is not the glitzy glamorous high-rolling tale of the 'gin-soaked' Jazz Age that some may expect. The novel is actually narrated by Zelda's fictionalized nurse, who gets in over her head during her care of Zelda and is sucked into the abyss that the Fitzgerald family creates for each other. It is a sad and poignant story and definitely not a sweet love story of Zelda and F. Scott - they were depicted as being very abusive and cruel and it was heartbreaking to read about their vindictiveness towards each other as Zelda sank deeper and deeper into a psychotic state.

This is not the first time the author has depicted distressing circumstances: Receive Me Falling touches on slavery, and Hemingway's Girl features a tattered and battered Hemingway with another example of a volatile relationship. Robuck can adeptly write these scenes as her voice is always clear and true though I am quite sure that I did not expect Call Me Zelda to be quite so melodramatically depressing, for lack of a better description.

Nurse Anna Howard's story is a major piece of the Fitzgerald puzzle as she is attempting to come to grips with the after-effects of the war and the fact her husband has disappeared while on duty. Anna becomes too close to the Fitzgeralds and subsequently blurs the lines between patient and nurse, but this flawed nature is what endears the reader to Anna, and being told in first person helps as well. The relationship between Zelda and Anna is the biggest thread to this story which plays itself out even when Zelda is not in the picture.

The nuances of the thirties are here in the telling through Zelda's letters and depictions of the past, but the story is very character-driven as they each attempt to manage their relationships. Zelda and Scott, Zelda and Scott and their daughter, Anna and the Fitzgeralds, Anna and her parents, Anna and her brother the priest, Anna and her missing husband, Anna and the missing husband's best friend, Anna and her driver, etc. It is a melancholy look at marriage between soul mates, at love that is lost to the ravages of time, of how misunderstandings irrevocably lead to disaster, of resilience of a little girl amidst it all, and how despite the tragedies and the grief, life goes on whether there is redemption or not.

While not a concentrated look at Zelda alone, using the narrator of Anna really helps the reader to imagine Zelda as a woman, a struggling wife and mother, and not just a flapper at a party. I love Erika Robuck's emotive writing especially because she always seems to be able to get at the heart of the characters just as she did with them here. I've always felt that Robuck's voice is eloquent and precise as she emits both the beauty and the tragedy of the figures she is portraying. The book chronicles the failures during their doomed quest to find the former life of the laughter and the young love in such a way that you will never be able to think of the Fitzgeralds in quite the same way again.