Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: "West of Sunset" by Stewart O'Nan

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writers of all time. Like many, I was first introduced to his writing in high school through The Great Gatsby, which I fell in love with pretty instantaneously, and then devoured everything else he wrote. But while I am familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald the author, I honestly never knew much about F. Scott Fitzgerald the man, save his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Zelda.

Stewart O'Nan's new book, West of Sunset, follows Fitzgerald at the end of his life. In 1937, despite the successes he achieved with his first few books, he is teetering on financial ruin, and his renown has been eclipsed by other American writers, such as Ernest Hemingway. His reputation has been soiled by his days as a violent alcoholic, as well as Zelda's mercurial and sometimes destructive behavior. With nowhere else to turn, he lands a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

Scott finds Hollywood to be a garden of temptation, of both the alcoholic and female persuasions. He begins working at MGM, and is reunited with old friends like Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell, and Humphrey Bogart and then-wife Mayo Methot. He finds life as a screenwriter not particularly challenging, although he doesn't enjoy having to navigate studio politics, which cause him to be bounced from one film to the next, and he sees his work get edited by other writers and directors. He uses his spare time to try and write another novel, about a powerful movie director, but can't quite muster the confidence.

While he tries to immerse himself in Hollywood life, he also tries to be a dutiful husband to Zelda, who is living in a mental hospital, and their daughter, Scottie. And as he struggles with his addiction to alcohol, he meets Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham, and promptly falls in love with her. Their tumultuous relationship, juxtaposed against his financial woes, his on-again, off-again binge drinking, and his guilt over betraying Zelda, causes his health to decline, and his career to do the same.

As a fan of old Hollywood, I found this book very interesting, as it touched on movies, actors, directors, and writers that I've heard of, and whose work I've seen over and over again. O'Nan paints Fitzgerald as a tremendously flawed character, desperately trying to redeem himself as a writer, a husband, a father, and a man, and not having much luck on any front. I've always been a fan of O'Nan's storytelling ability, having read all of his books, and while this one moves a bit slow at times, and feels repetitive after the fifth or sixth time Scott's alcoholism relapses, O'Nan's talent is once again on display.

This is an enjoyable, but somewhat melancholy, look at an entirely different side of one of literature's leading lions, and some of Hollywood's glory days. If you're as fascinated by movie and literary nostalgia as I am, pick this one up.

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