Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck. Publisher: New American Library (May 2013). Historical fiction. Trade Paperback Original. 326 pages. ISBN 978-0-451-23992-1.
Zelda Fitzgerald’s become this mythical, magical spirited and elegant figure for the literary and Jazz age of the 1920s and 1930s. There’s been much written about her turbulent relationship with her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. She served as a muse for characters in many of his novels. They partied and drank their way through Paris in their heyday before losing much of their fame and wealth. Zelda suffered from mental illness—schizophrenia, anxiety, depression– and needed to be institutionalized several times.
In her thoughtful, compelling novel Call Me Zelda, author Erika Robuck craftily utilizes psychiatric nurse Anna as the narrator in a brilliant mode of storytelling. Overlapping the stories of these women establishes a wonderfully contemplative novel on mental illness, empathy and women’s ability to transform despite setbacks. The author doesn’t put herself in Zelda’s place but in the place of a close confident or caretaker to Zelda. This effectively allows some distance to remain a bit impartial and perhaps less judgmental while still empathetic.
We meet Zelda Fitzgerald and her nurse at Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in 1932. Zelda quickly develops a bond with Anna which, despite several misunderstandings and separations, lasts until the end of Zelda’s life. Zelda leaves the clinic and Anna becomes her personal nurse. Her treatment gets a bit murky. The focus stays more on her relationship to Scott, her own writing and creative goals and desire for some independence from her husband.
“But maybe it was my selfish desire to be needed. Maybe it was their celebrity. Deep down I knew I longed for the blissful anonymity of becoming part of the something beautiful and tragic and even historic—like a single stroke of paint on a large and detailed landscape.”
Through dense imagery, Robuck establishes the fragmented, tormented marriage between writer and muse. Scott needed Zelda more than Zelda needed Scott or did they equally play off one another? A sycophant relationship. Both had affairs. Both came back to each other again and again. Both clearly loved each other. Both caused the other pain and heartache and worry. Of Scott, Zelda tells her doctor: “he thinks he should be enough for me. He needs me to orbit him. He wishes to pluck me from orbit when he needs me and then send me back once he’s used me up.”
I immensely enjoyed Robuck’s last historical fiction novel Hemingway’s Girl and her exhaustive research and nurture for her subject comes across in Call Me Zelda. Robuck lives in Annapolis, Maryland and there’s detailed description for the area in which Anna lives and Zelda receives much of her medical treatment during the novel. At first I became a bit confused when the focus shifted from Zelda to Anna. But then I became as interested in Anna’s life as Zelda’s and understood that the women’s lives were intertwined and an enjoyable story about Zelda needn’t be completely about Zelda to function.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from New American Library/Penguin.