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Beautiful Fools by R Clifton Spargo

Famous writers' wives have had something of a literary revival in recent years. Paula McLain's The Paris Wife and Naomi Wood's Mrs Hemingway imagine the lives of the various Hemingway women, while the vogue for flappers and The Great Gatsby has led to a spate of books about Zelda Fitzgerald. Fans of the Roaring Twenties have been spoiled for choice, what with Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck, and Guests on Earth by Lee Smith.

Beautiful Fools by R Clifton Spargo

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: In 1939, F Scott Fitzgerald was a washed-up Hollywood hack suffering from alcoholism and tuberculosis; his wife Zelda was stagnating at a North Carolina asylum. Spargo's accomplished debut tenderly chronicles the golden couple's final holiday to Cuba.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: April 2014
Publisher: Overlook Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781468308808

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R. Clifton Spargo's Beautiful Fools does something a bit different, though. An elegiac account of the Fitzgeralds' last holiday together, it gives both members of the couple equal billing. In April 1939, Scott was living in Los Angeles with his lover, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, and lamenting his fallen literary star while reluctantly working on Hollywood scripts. 'Morosely he imagined bookstores across the county filled with novels on every shelf, none of them his.' By now there was no denying that he was deeply unwell: tuberculosis and alcoholism had both taken a heavy toll.

Meanwhile, Zelda had been in and out of mental hospitals for nearly a decade. In the novel's first chapter, Scott finally agrees to take her out of her North Carolina asylum for a trip to Cuba. They have lived apart for so long and hurt each other in so many ways, but they still share a deep bond. Neither of them is naïve enough to believe that one vacation can solve their marital problems, but they love each other enough to keep working at it. Scott suggests they keep their expectations low: 'let them try to take care of each other as best they could, day by day, starting small, starting with tonight, moving on from there.'

Not a lot happens in the novel, but with the Fitzgeralds' notoriously bad luck and bad choices, it should come as no surprise that everything seems to go wrong in some way. Even here they instantly draw the attention of the paparazzi. They witness a knifing in a bar (a scene that seemed to me peculiarly reminiscent of a climactic moment in A Room with a View), and, as always, they are fools when it comes to money and drink. A fortune teller's predictions about Scott's impending death scare Zelda so much that she runs away, staying missing for most of a night. Later Scott attends a cockfight, a bloody spectacle that ends in disaster.

The book's languid pace, reflecting the heat and the holiday atmosphere, can sometimes feel like more of a hindrance than an asset. Yet when the author tries to foster suspense – with the murder in the bar, Scott's journal always going missing, and a scuffle over a gun – it often seems forced. Instead of action, Spargo excels at picking apart the psychological intricacies of this floundering relationship. He imagines himself into both characters' minds flawlessly, and their dialogue sparks with honesty. It is impossible not to feel for Zelda as she confesses her mental confusion and the difficulty of maintaining hope: 'you don't know how hard it is to fight what's inside of you as though it were your enemy…I just need there to be a next chapter. I'm someone who needs to look forward to things.'

Alas, this Cuban holiday was to be the last chapter for the Fitzgeralds. Just over a year and a half later, in December 1940, Scott would be dead. In some ways the trip was a failure; Zelda admits that she doubts the point of these 'experiments in starting over', wondering 'if there's anything at stake in them except killing time.' The fragility of second chances and the fraying threads that hold people together are themes that Spargo explores with great sensitivity. The image that will remain with me is of Scott watching Zelda on the beach, thinking of her as a blend of the utterly strange and – despite the passage of years – the entirely familiar, just as any of us are to each other:

'The woman toeing the edge of the promontory was his wife, her posture balletic, back held erect in a line with her heels. From this distance she seemed supple, lithe, as irrepressible as in the days when she had trained for dance with steadfast indifference to body and mind. […] She was brave, maybe even foolhardy, and he swelled with admiration for her.'

Further reading suggestion: Anyone interested in Zelda's life will want to follow this one up with her first-person story in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. For a nonfiction look at Scott Fitzgerald's doomed health, try The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing.

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