“They were stars on this stage, each playing to an audience of two”; in his achingly poignant portrait of the pitfalls of American high society, Fitzgerald shows us that the performance cannot last forever.
Beginning in the decadence of 1913, the novel follows the life of Anthony Patch, a dashing yet cynical young debonaire who exists in an ecstasy of leisure. Grandson of Adam Patch, a fabulously wealthy millionaire, he rents a sophisticated apartment in New York and spends his days seeking out pleasure. His friends – the feline Maury Noble and scorned Richard Caramel – afford him relative enjoyment, providing audiences for his frequent philosophical musings and reckless evenings out. Dick Caramel is an aspiring author, pitifully obsessed with his novel ‘The Demon Lover’; yet it is his cousin, Gloria, who soon becomes the focus of Anthony’s entire existence.
Gloria Gilbert is the jewel of the shimmering social scene. Young, carefree and undeniably beautiful, her life is a never-ending stream of social engagements: dances, lunches and dates with captivated suitors. Upon introduction to Anthony she is at first indifferent, used to the attention of men; yet as their acquaintance develops, she becomes enraptured in his tender promises and affords him what no other man has yet won from her: marriage.
Wed at his grandfather’s magnificent estate, Anthony embarks on married life in much the same spirit as he spent his bachelorhood: accepting nothing but luxury and carefree pleasure. Touring the beaches and vineyards of California for their honeymoon, the couple settle back in New York, full of the promise of fresh love and a sparkling future. Yet as time draws ever on, Anthony seems less and less able to justify his aimless life with the greedy nonchalance he has so far led it with. Uninterested in work, he and Gloria spend thousands on resplendent parties, alcohol and ‘having fun’, yet as time goes by and the First World War approaches, the money is fast running out. And with precarious funds comes turbulence in Anthony and Gloria’s relationship, a storm that threatens to shatter the pillars of their existence.
An often bitingly satirical yet indulgently fond portrayal of the Jazz Age, the novel is another jewel in the dazzling crown of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Almost obviously based on Fitzgerald’s own life with his wife Zelda, it is a complicated exploration of the pitfalls of human aspiration. Structurally it is split into three main sections, with numerous smaller excerpts heading striking moments in the lives of the protagonists. I say protagonists, though at times the reader feels almost repelled by the gross privilege the couple and their friends enjoy, and by their lack of drive to make their own way. They are the distinct opposite of the American Dream, but can succeed nonetheless, Fitzgerald perhaps cynically observing the hypocrisy of an entire nation.
Biased as ever when it comes to Fitzgerald’s work, I would recommend reading this book if you are a fan of his work, or even have never read any of his before. It is a fascinating insight into a lost world, a world dying even during its birth, carrying a tragic undertone that forces a reluctant sympathy with the characters who struggle to survive amidst the tides of ageing and change. Ultimately it is a forlorn tribute to the glory of youth and wealth in an age that rewarded both with a crown of paradise, with a reminder that neither can exist together forever.
As the New York Times surmises:
“Fitzgerald was better than he knew, for in fact and in the literary sense he invented a generation.”