Review: CALL ME ZELDA by Erika Robuk
Review by Alison Doherty
Call Me Zelda
NAL Trade, 2013
Since I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, I’ve been fascinated by the Fitzgeralds – especially Zelda. In a lot of ways their story as a couple both eclipses and bolsters F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books. Lately with the resurgence of nostalgia for the 1920s, aided by Downton Abbey and Baz Luhrmann’s film, even more people are interested in Zelda. They are interested in Zelda, the southern belle who charmed all the officers, or Zelda, the flapper who drank champagne all night and danced in fountains. CALL ME ZELDA, by Erika Robuck doesn’t focus on that Zelda. Instead the book shows her in the 1930s, trying desperately to recover from a mental breakdown and trying to forge an identity separate from her famous husband.
The book succeeds in large part because it is told through the perspective of made-up character Nurse Anne Howard. Anne has a history and problems of her own, but as she gets more and more absorbed in the Fitzgeralds so does the reader. Anne eventually quits her job at the psychiatric hospital to move into the Fitzgerad’s home. She starts feeling more like a family friend than employee, but the ground in the Fitzgerald household is always shifting.
During this time, Zelda cathartically writes out memories from iconic periods of her life for Anne. While these times are fun to read about, I think it was a little too bold of Robuck to assume Zelda’s writing style. Anne joins Zelda in her obsession with finding the diaries, which F. Scott Fitzgerald stole for material for his novels and proceeded to lose. They both begin to think if the diaries can be recovered Zelda will be able to recover her identity from being mixed up with her roll as Scott’s muse and literary archetype.
Even though historical fiction hasn’t been my favorite thing to read lately, overall I really enjoyed this book. I became as absorbed in Anne’s personal story as I was in this interpretation of Zelda and Scott. It is hard to take on such iconic historical and literary figures, but I think setting the book after their success made this easier.
Both Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald created their own fictionalizations of this time period and Zelda’s breakdown. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote TENDER IS THE NIGHT about a famous psychiatrist who sacrifices his career to marry one of his patients. Zelda wrote the very autobiographical SAVE ME THE WALTZ, in which she portrays the couple’s whole relationship. In fact, CALL ME ZELDA shows both characters working on these books.
If you want to learn more about Zelda I would suggest starting with either of those or checking out the biography ZELDA, by Nancy Mitford. However, if you are looking for something easier to read or have already read those books, CALL ME ZELDA, is definitely a book I would recommend. Erika Robuck has also written novels about Edna St. Vincent Millay and Ernest Hemingway, if stories about those authors sound more interesting to you.