Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck

The famous author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his mercurial, fabulous flapper of a wife, Zelda. The "it" couple of the 1920s. Poster children for talent and excess, alcoholism and madness. And despite all we already know about them, the Fitzgeralds still exert a powerful pull on our imaginations to this day. Interestingly, the more enticing and captivating of the couple seems to be Zelda with her mix of gaiety and fragility, her strength and schizophrenia, her glamour and instability. Erika Robuck's newest novel, Call Me Zelda, is one of a new spate of books about the oh so public but somehow still enigmatic figure that was Zelda Fitzgerald.

Anna Howard is a nurse at Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore. She has a way with her patients, calm and measured and yet very private and closed off. She truly cares for the people with whom she works but she shares little of her own sadly tragic life with them, keeping a professional distance. In the early 1930s, when Zelda Fitzgerald is committed to the hospital and placed under Anna's care, this reserve starts to slowly crumble. Anna narrates Zelda's story, sits in judgment over Scott, and becomes a necessary part of the Fitzgeralds' lives. As Zelda submits to treatment, she writes her story privately for Anna and Anna divulges the heartbreaking pain in her own background. When Zelda is released from Phipps, against medical advice, Anna leaves with her to become her private nurse, living with the Fitzgeralds and seeing firsthand the dark side of passion in their volatile and tumultuous marriage.

With Anna's close proximity to Scott and Zelda, she can see the tangled inner workings of their marriage, their co-dependence, and the battles they fought with each other over their artistic talents and their very identities. But the well-documented, true to life fireworks between the famous pair are not the only interesting plot thread here. Anna's story, the impact and damage of WWI that continues to reverberate in her life, is at least as fascinating as Zelda and Scott's tale. Both Zelda and Anna lead sad and ravaged lives and their similarities help to bond them together in a mutual friendship even as Anna struggles to maintain the perspective she needs to continue as Zelda's caretaker. It is this perspective, and the different paths that their lives will ultimately take, that eventually separates the two women, one lost and the other found.

Robuck has done a wonderful job bringing the dissipation and strife of the fading Jazz Era to life. She's captured the results of that sparkling gaiety as it dims, turning out the lights on some of those who burned fastest and brightest. Scott Fitzgerald is definitely a villain here, driven that way by his out of control drinking and fear that his talent is finite.  His selfish, grasping need for his wife, as he's created her, is always evident. On the flip side, Zelda herself feeds his egotism and then deliberately antagonizes him, driving the wheel of madness round and round. Robuck's portrayal of these two surely calls into question the thin line between genius and madness and condemns the excesses of fame. In her character of Anna, Robuck shows the effect of the times on the regular person, that brief space between the world wars, contrasting the sometimes joyful, sometimes subdued recovery with the unnecessary devastating destructiveness of the Fitzgeralds. This was a fascinating look at a broken woman whose diagnosis and whose impact on and importance to her famous husband's life scholars still disagree about. After this glimpse of her glamour and her madness, I look forward to reading more on Zelda.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. This sounds so fascinating. These two were clearly dependent upon one another and fed each others demons, and to see it from another person's perspective would be very interesting. Definitely on my wish list.

  2. I really want to read this. Nice review!

  3. This is my first foray into your book-review world--nicely done! Now I have a source for recommendations for my f2f group.


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