F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby has seen several different interpretations, the most recent of which is Baz Luhrmann's frantic, visually overwhelming film opening in theaters tomorrow. But each version has one thing in common: a tragic love story between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan -- one that mirrored the difficult relationship between Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda.
Like Daisy, Zelda was the quintessential flapper, and initially rejected the man she loved for financial reasons. Unlike Daisy, Zelda ended up married to her Gatsby -- but the Fitzgeralds' love story didn't end much happier than F. Scott's novel.
In 1939, 14 years after The Great Gatsby's first edition was published, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald tried one last time to save their failing marriage with a trip to Havana, Cuba. That disastrous trip is the basis of author R. Clifton Spargo's Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.
The novel is a fictional account, but one that's well researched. Spargo melds the real-life details of the Fitzgeralds' relationship into his own imagination of the thoughts and feelings driving their behavior. The result is an intimate and believable portrait of two of American literature's most famous real-life characters.
In 1939, F. Scott is separated from Zelda, living in Hollywood, falling into alcoholism, and taking up with a series of girlfriends while his wife recovers in a mental hospital on the East Coast. They communicate by letter, telling each other half-truths about their feelings and lives, always intending to go back to the way things were.
Instead, they go to Havana. But what begins as an opportunity to reconnect turns sour when Scott, fueled by liquor, gets mixed up with a sketchy Cuban businessman. The Cuban drags them to a locals' club where they witness a violent crime, threatening to send Zelda off the deep end into insanity once again, and the couple retreat from the city and into the Cuban countryside.
But they can't escape -- not their new "friend" from Havana, who sends a spy to bring them back to the city, and not their own issues. Both Scott and Zelda cling to the past, whether they're reveling in nostalgia or holding grudges from years ago. As they struggle with their circumstances on the exotic but frustratingly foreign island, it becomes clear to the reader, if not the couple themselves, that the Fitzgeralds never really had a chance.
Which, in a way, is just another retelling of the story of Gatsby: two characters wanting to return to the past while simultaneously hating it, doomed from the outset. If you're looking for a Great Gatsby retelling with more substance than Baz Luhrmann's latest, Beautiful Fools is it.
Beautiful Fools released earlier this month. Visit overlookpress.com.
Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.
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