Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In college I decided to read The Great Gatsby. I didn't feel I could consider myself a well-read American having never read any Fitzgerald. At the time (and really to this day), I didn't get the appeal. The light at the end of the dock never did anything for me. I never liked Gatsby or any of the other characters. The book stood out as nothing more than one of those Classics that everyone was supposed to read and love because they were told to, not because they genuinely had any affection for the storyline. (I'm not saying people who really enjoy Fitzgerald are wrong, I'm just saying I never got the appeal).

More recently I have wanted to learn more about life in 1920/30s America. As such I have picked up a handful of novels about the interwar era written by authors of the time. I find I get a much better sense of the people and the time with a novel than with a history text. One such book was Tender is the Night. I read it on a plane on the assumption that it would be good for me, but I wouldn't really enjoy it. Happily, I was wrong. I REALLY liked Tender is the Night and for the first I time understand and appreciate Fitzgerald as a classic, worthy American literary author.

Tender is the Night revolves around a psychiatrist and his schizophrenic wife who travel around Europe chasing happiness. While the characters might not seem to resemble Fitzgerald and Zelda, the book is largely autobiographical. Fitzgerald used a number of events in the story that really happened to his family. It is the honesty of life for American ex-pats in this book that I enjoyed. Fitzgerald really captured the aimlessness of the people living in that era who flitted from city to city searching for meaning.

More than the plot, however, I found Fitzgerald's writing style dynamic and engaging. He has a descriptive ability that I find lacking in many modern authors. He can say in one or two words what takes many authors a full sentence, if not a paragraph. After reading Tender is the Night, I would like to pick up more Fitzgerald to analyze his descriptive talent.

Moral of the story: don't assume every book by an author is bad (or good, for that matter) based on the "Classic" that is over-used, over-quoted, and force fed to school students. Some of the other books might be much better.

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