Book Review Friday – The Great Gatsby

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I am a lover of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. So I was fascinated by director Baz Luhrmann’s attempt to recreate one of my favorite novels on the screen. Not only did the director need a movie so much larger than life, he also needed to outshine the earlier movie, starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby. He managed to pull it off in the new movie Gatsby, but he also created a realistic portrait of the division between the classes of society that existed in the roaring ’20s and now in the riotous 2000s.

Before I go into why I loved the new movie, I’d like to take a look at the original novel written by Fitzgerald while he lived in Paris. One of his beta readers was Ernest Hemingway of all people. Hemingway, often jealous and bitter toward his fellow writers, read The Great Gatsby and knew it was a masterpiece.

I often reread The Great Gatsby for many reasons.

  1. The time period The Great Gatsby captures a period of recklessness in society in this country. After the Great War, the Great Prohibition began. It fueled the concept of the roaring ’20s when lawlessness in dress and decorum ruled. From our perspective today, the time is played at a fast speed, and we know the people of the time were headed toward catastrophe at the end of the decade.
  2. Where Fitzgerald wrote the book Scott and Zelda were a part of the 1920’s artistic scene in Paris. It’s actually amazing he could write anything during the alcoholic haze where the artists lived. I love to read stories about the expats during that time period. I wonder at the tight group of artists living in this world in the post-war era. From accounts, the atmosphere was charged with creativity and competition. And from it came some of the greatest pieces of literature of the twentieth century.
  3. The tight and concise plot – I reread the book specifically to study how Fitzgerald crafted the main plot and secondary plot so they intersect by the end of the novel in a tragic conclusion. Brilliant plotting.
  4. The characters – Fitzgerald paints portraits of characters chiseled from reality. The shallowness of the rich and the depth of the narrator and Gatsby are universal and remain relevant today. That’s the true standard of classic literature – nearly one hundred years later, I recognize parts of myself and others around me in Fitzgerald’s Daisy, Gatsby, and Nick.
  5. The deep divide between cultures – Fitzgerald created distinct caricatures of society. East Egg on Long Island is the haven for the old rich who look down their docks across the bay to West Egg where the noveau rich luxuriate in their newly minted wealth. And then there’s the valley of ashes, a dark and dingy spot on the road from Long Island to New York City. It’s here where the ugly work is done to power and fuel the workings of upper classes.
  6. The indictment of the careless and shallow rich – At first, it seems as if Fitzgerald is glorying in the excesses of the rich, but as the novel progresses that glory turns as dark as the soot in the valley of ashes.

As a result of my love for this novel, I went to the new Gatsby movie on the day it opened. The new movie honors Fitzgerald in many of its portraits of the roaring and shallow 1920s. Fitzgerald and this movie both sneer at the debauchery and excesses of the time period. It’s ironic because Scott and Zelda indulged themselves in that very society. It must be one of the reasons that Fitzgerald lived a rather tortured alcoholic life as he despised the very life he lived.

The movie shouts the debauchery and the chasm between the haves and have nots. That’s not a criticism on my part. Visually, the movie is impeccable and probably plays well in 3-D, but I chose to see it in standard style.

The audience is held in suspense waiting for the first introductions to Daisy, and finally after much anticipation, Jay Gatsby himself. I thought I would be disappointed seeing any other actor besides Redford play Gatsby. But I was not. Leonardo DiCaprio is a brilliant character actor, and from his first appearance on the screen, I knew I was finally meeting the elusive and innocent and romantic Gatsby just as Fitzgerald created him.

Daisy, played by Carey Mulligan, appears much earlier in the movie with some of the same anticipation. White gauzy curtains billow in the sitting room of the Buchanan mansion. A hand lifts languidly from the couch as the curtains unfurl overhead. And then . . . Daisy? Carey Mulligan is not Daisy Buchanan by any stretch of my imagination. Daisy is wispy like the curtains blowing in the ocean breeze; Daisy is delicate and almost off balance; Daisy is dainty and desirable. But Mulligan melts into the background in comparison to her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), Nick (Tobey McGuire), and Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). The casting for all the other characters is brilliant, but the casting of Daisy did not work. Mulligan is neither wispy, fragile, or a woman described by Fitzgerald, “Her voice is full of money.”

Overall, I loved the movie despite my disappointment of the actress playing Daisy. She might be a wonderful actress in any other role. She had big shoes to fill, but couldn’t step into them in this movie.

When the movie ended at the matinee I attended the day of the movie’s release, the audience stayed in place for a split second and then the partially filled theater burst into applause. It’s a rare occasion when I’ve witnessed that type of spontaneous reaction to a movie. Both my daughter and I joined the rest in giving a “bravo” for a film that took the words and creative genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald and translated it onto the screen in a grand package.

What’s your favorite classic novel and has it ever been into a film?

Two Male Authors and Their Books

pilebooksBy Patricia Zick @PCZick

Two books, two male authors, and two similar disillusioned looks at love kept me reading late into the night recently.

I admit I read books written by women with intriguing female protagonists most of the time. It’s my preferred choice because I’m a female author who creates female protagonists in pursuit of truth and love. But I reached my quota a few months ago after reading one too many “bestselling” novels by “bestseller” female authors. The last novels disappointed me with weak plots and annoying female leads.

I decided I needed a break from my “studies.” It’s not that I don’t like male writers – Pat Conroy and John Irving are two of my all-time favorites – it’s just that I study in the genre I write. Sometimes it helps to break with routine.

I turned to Jeffrey Eugenides and The Marriage Plot. I enjoyed Middlesex, his novel that received a Pulitzer Prize in 2002, so I eagerly awaited his next book published ten years later.

The Marriage Plot

 

The Marriage Plot takes a different approach when a love triangle forms with Madeleine at the center as she writes her senior thesis on female authors from the nineteenth century who formed the “marriage plot” of the era.

Madeleine’s love interests, Leonard and Mitchell, provide glimpses at very different versions of intellectual prowess. The novel begins at Brown University and follows the characters through college and beyond as they travel and do post-graduate studies. The book has received criticism for being pretentious in its literary ramblings and collegial discussions.

I found it refreshing to read a novel not watered down to achieve the eighth-grade national reading level. I learned about things I’d never heard of before , such as semiotics, and I felt intelligent when I understood the genius behind the madness of Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. Thank you, Mr. Eugenides, for taking ten years to write a novel of substance.

Since I enjoyed reading one male author so much, I ventured immediately into another one on my shelf purchased from the discount bin at the local bookstore. Douglas Kennedy creates a rich portrait of a female protagonist in Leaving the World.Leaving the World: A Novel

Again, I found myself immersed in the life of an intelligent and literary main character, Jane. Jane loves, loses, and learns to rise up above the ashes of her pitiful life. Despite the outrageous plot contrivances and the unbelievable tragedies that befall Jane, I was intrigued by her pain and poor decision-making abilities. I moaned a couple of times when I recognized the brink Jane teetered on, but I still became invested in Jane’s redemption.

After these books, I went to another male author. Ernest Hemingway has never been one of my favorite writers, but I wanted to read his account of his Paris years in A Moveable Feast. That’s for another post.

Next, I’m embarking on a book I found impossible to read in serial form when it was released back in 1987 in Rolling Stone. But it’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe so I thought I’d give it a try. Now it will be an historical account rather than a contemporary examination Wall Street and New York City. At 700 pages, don’t expect me to write about it anytime soon, if I can embrace it this time around.

Have you read either of these novels?  What did you think? What are you reading now?

All memory is fiction

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.

-Ernest Hemingway

I just finished reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, a fictional account of Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson. They married before he’d published any of his novels, and she accompanied his during his Paris years in the 1920s as he wrote The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway lost lots of friends throughout his life because his novels, particularly his first one Sun and For Whom the Bell Tolls are barely disguised as autobiographical. In his first draft of Sun, he didn’t even bother to fictionalize the names of those characters.

Whenever I’m asked if my fiction is autobiographical, I laugh. How can our writing not be about our past? Some of us merely disguise it more.

I’ve always maintained all of our memories are fiction so why not the other way around. Have you ever shared memories with friends and families years after an event? Everyone has a different story to tell based on their experience of that event.

I agree with Hemingway’s quote. I’ve read several novels recently where the main characters are caricatures, and they come across as false and hollow. I find myself concentrating on the characterization rather than losing myself in the writing.

The Paris Wife is an excellent read. Despite the real characters, such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, populating its pages, I was mesmerized by the story and captivated by the writer’s ability to portray the agony and angst of a writer whose every flaw is exposed. Despite that, I still found myself drawn to the Hemingway character. McLain takes real life and turns into fiction without losing the essence of the man and the era.