West of Sunset
We are Here: Done!
Spoilers? Not unless you consider fictionalized history spoiler-able.
O’Nan chose to zero in on the final years of Fitzgerald’s life, spent partly working on screenplays in Hollywood and if the book has it correctly, partly drinking himself into an early grave with some whistle-stops stations Family Man, Adulterer, and Reconciling with My Mistress. Oh, he was also working on a novel, but that was basically an afterthought. Unfortunately. More time (too much to too little effect, in my opinion) was devoted to professing the fraught connection between Fitzgerald and Sheila Graham.
I was unconvinced by the Fitzgerald & Graham attraction and romance…there wasn’t enough there there. We were supposed to take Graham’s word for it that she was in love with him, and Fitzgerald’s word that he was similarly with her, without being privy to why. Their actions betrayed a sense of caring about one another, but again, there was no build up of feeling or explanation for their connection.
The complicated history and relationship between Zelda & Scott was much more interesting, as were his misgivings about her prognosis, his behavior (past, present and future), and their marriage. This whole “sub-plot” created a through-line, tethering Fitzgerald to a history and a future, while his work in Hollywood felt at times like a sojourn. His entire being and moving throughout his life feels un-moored, so it was nice to have his family bringing him back to something…familiar.
O’Nan does an admirable job of trying to get us into Fitzgerald’s head. It’s nice to speculate what he thought and felt as we flit past the greatest hits (and, conversely, frustrations) of his Hollywood career. The end felt rushed and then slowed just enough to make my heart pound slightly, knowing, and yet wondering, when–when would it–and then it of course happened. The epilogue struck me as unnecessary, but I also liked it because more Scottie, please (see below).
Los Angeles in the 1930’s was almost a character itself, and I wanted to live there.
Scottie may have been the best character in the book…she illuminated her father’s character and I wanted to know more about her life, both during this period, before, and after.
I wanted more of Fitzgerald’s relationship with his secretary, Frances Ring, who seemed awesome. They had a fun repartee that I wish had taken up more space in the final chapters.
This book didn’t spend overmuch time with anyone, so I suppose it’s natural to be left wanting more of the characters I enjoyed (Dottie Parker, Scottie, Frances) and wishing others had been either left out or fleshed out.
Why is this book better than people?
Most people cannot transport you to an era you will never have the chance to actually experience. A time and place where you get to hang with Dorothy Parker in all her bitter glory, swim with Humphrey Bogart in a drunken haze, and chase Zelda around several resorts. I’m a sucker for the 1920’s and 30’s, and this book wraps you in a hug of 30’s Hollywood with a few field trips to the memories and broken promises of the decade before.
Bonus Section: Author Sighting!
I bought this book because I had taken my copy of Emily, Alone for Stewart O’Nan to sign at Vroman’s. He explained the impetus behind writing his newest book and provided some historical background (i.e., “The Crackup”) before launching into his reading. He had a penchant for lilting up at the end of every sentence, which I found jarring, but O’Nan conveyed a down-to-earth understanding of his writing style. More than once as he read from the first chapter, he would flipped past a section, saying “and now we have four pages of driving” or something similarly dismissive. Oh, how we chuckled!
Being enamored with F. Scott Fitzgerald, a fan of O’Nan’s measured, intimate style, and now having witnessed how down-to-earth he was, I decided I should probably read his newest book. Like most readers, I impulse-buy at bookstores, and my impulses tend to get the best of me during the persuasive spells that are cast over me during some author signings. O’Nan was too charming and I had enjoyed his other fiction too much not to be swayed. Goodbye, money. Hello, new/old world!
Before reading I had to get through the book signing. I rarely have anything to say at these as I abhor foisting what is sure to be a repeat conversation on someone who probably just wants to go sit quietly in their hotel room and call their family. But this time I wanted to let the author know what their work had meant to me.
It was quietest rock-star moment I’ve had since I talked about Sesame Street‘s Gladys the cow with Michael Silverstein. Quieter.
O’Nan asked what I was reading. Him, of course! (This prompted a jocular job offer that I wish I had at least attempted to take seriously.) And Octavia E. Butler, as I’d just lurched through Kindred and you don’t just forget that reading experience OMG READ KINDRED. O’Nan sagely recognized Butler’s work as the excellent reading choice it is.
My respect for him thus validated, I barely managed to reign in my impulse to go fan-tastic on him. With an awkward non-segue, I said I loved Emily, Alone. That it had given me hope for the future. That old age could be something to embrace rather than fear. He signed my book “With much hope.” Thankfully I didn’t discover the inscription until I was safely at home and could react like the swooning fan I am. What a lovely person, to have written that.
To listen to the X-thousandth person you meet and hear them, if only for a moment, and give them a meaningful memory…that takes patience and care, even if it isn’t genuine. But this felt genuine, and I appreciated it. It was grand and small, as his prose is.
In conclusion, read this book. Because Stewart O’Nan was nice to me.