West of Sunset

Written by Stewart O'Nan
Review by Diane Scott Lewis

In 1937, author F. Scott Fitzgerald travels to Hollywood to salvage his writing career as a screenwriter. He’s considered a has-been – his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, was published in 1925 – and his rampant alcoholism doesn’t help. He struggles on with screenplays only to be replaced by other writers, then he must scramble for another job to offset his huge debts. His wife, Zelda, once the darling of the Jazz Age, has had several nervous breakdowns and is confined to an asylum back east. Scott visits her dutifully, but he’s worn out by her unpredictable nature. His beautiful, exciting wife has become dull and frumpy. He feels a failure as a writer and a husband. One night, at a Hollywood club, he spots a beautiful, blonde gossip columnist, Sheila Graham, and soon they begin a torrid affair. She implores him to stop drinking; however, Scott’s demons are too deep. He takes the “cure” yet always returns to the bottle. Sheila throws him out, though eventually takes him back, her love for him strong.

“Cures” for alcoholics were primitive in the ‘30s. Nevertheless, I doubt modern treatments would have saved Fitzgerald; he was so far gone in these last three and a half years of his life. Zelda is also to be pitied, a woman who probably suffered from bi-polar disorder before there were proper medications. This novel is lyrically written, melancholy, with interesting dips into the Golden Age of Hollywood, plus the unfairness of the studio system. Fitzgerald was self-destructive, insecure, yet I felt a great sympathy for his plight. I wished for a different ending, but knew better. Defeat lingered at every turn of the page. A sad spiraling toward destruction of a once brilliant author, this absorbing read will compel you to search out biographies of Scott and Zelda.