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save me the waltz

The one and only novel written by Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, Save me the Waltz is the novel my very small book group chose for our July read. It is the book Zelda wrote during a period she spent in a Baltimore hospital to receive psychiatric treatment, while there she spent around two hours a day writing as a part of a daily routine to aid her recovery. The book was written in just a few weeks and to be absolutely honest it shows. Both Harry T Moore who wrote the introduction printed in this edition, and the Wikipedia page for the novel suggest that F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted upon or at least strongly encouraged her to make various revisions. I can’t help but feel very sad for this woman who had so many hopes and dreams, suffered so much illness and who, devastated by the lack of success her novel had, never published another.

I wonder whether Zelda is still best for who she married (the fate of many women with talent and ambition sadly) or whether Vintage’s re-issuing of this novel in 2001 and the recent novel; Z a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler has re-established interest in Zelda for her own sake – I hope so. In her day, she was a famous glamour girl and an aspiring ballerina, dubbed the first American flapper by her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda and Scott were the epitome of the jazz age, and their story still fascinates many fans today. The novel is highly autobiographical, and tells a similar story to that of F. Scot’s novel Tender is the Night. There are many well written passages, some lovely description and the novel shows that Zelda was certainly a writer of some talent – however there is also a lot of the novel which is rather overwritten, and for me the characters lacked depth. The novel is still fascinating for what it might teach us about Zelda herself.

“She felt the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion. Neither falling nor breaking, the stream spins finer. She felt herself very small and ecstatic. Alabama was in love.”

The novel tells the story of Alabama Biggs, the youngest of three sisters, she grows up in the south, fascinated by her older, beautiful sisters and their beaus, she is in a hurry to grow up. The daughters of Judge Austin Biggs and Miss Millie – the opening to this novel had a wonderful Southern feel which transports the reader to another time entirely.

“A southern moon is a sodden moon, and sultry. When it swamps the fields and the rustling sandy roads and the sticky honeysuckle hedges in its sweet stagnation, your fight to hold on to reality is like a protestation against a first waft of ether.”

Just before World War One Alabama meets her own beau, David Knight, the two marry and David goes on to become a very successful painter. The Knights (like the Fitzgeralds of course) become the toast of jazz society – everyone seems to know them or want to know them, their lives for a time is almost one long party.

They have a baby daughter Bonnie, who is something of mysterious novelty to the dizzy pair – thank goodness for the nanny – and the Knights move their little family to the Riviera. Here there are more parties, and little distractions and temptations for each of them. The story is sometimes hard to follow, a bit fragmented although it certainly captures the spirit of an age. Like her creator, Alabama doesn’t want to just be the wife of a successful artist, she has ambitions and dreams of her own. Others don’t take her ambitions seriously, but Alabama has a fierce determination to succeed as a ballerina – despite being rather old for someone starting out.

“It seemed to Alabama that, reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her – that, in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self – that she would be able, through the medium of the dance, to command her emotions, to summon love or pity or happiness at will, having provided a channel through which they might flow. She drove herself mercilessly, and the summer dragged on.”

Alabama starts training under Madame, her determination driving her to aching muscles and bleeding feet. Her desire is to dance the role of La Chatte – which she had once seen danced by the Russian ballet. Ballet allows Alabama the freedom she has craved to be just herself, and shrugging off the small jealousies of the dance world she begins to blossom. As Alabama begins to succeed in dance the cracks in her marriage become gradually more apparent. This section – where Alabama begins her dance training (along with the passages set in the Biggs family home before Alabama marries) are the best in the book.

Save me the Waltz is not a great novel – but it isn’t a terrible one either – and Zelda didn’t deserve the dismissal it seems to have received in her lifetime. And although Alabama isn’t as strong a character as I would have liked her to be she is the one thing that shines from the novel – and I liked her enormously. I didn’t love Save me the Waltz as much as I thought I would, but it is worth reading, and a fascinating insight into the life of a woman whose sparkle still has the power to dazzle.

zelda fitzgerald

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