Written By: Erika Robuck
Published By: NAL Trade an imprint of Penguin May 7, 2013
Length: 323 pages
As this story of Zelda Fitzgerald opens, her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald is placing her in the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore Maryland. The year is 1932 and as the author writes
“The ward was never the same after that February afternoon when Zelda Fitzgerald stumbled into the psychiatric clinic with a stack of papers clutched to her chest, eyes darting this way and that, at once pushing from and pulling toward her husband like a spinning magnet. “
With this opening sentence how can the reader not be pulled in? This telling of Zelda’s life is focused on the many years she was in and out of mental health care. Zelda most often portrayed as the uncontrollable party girl wife to the brilliant F. Scott was in and out of clinics and hospitals most of the second half of her life. As she arrives at Phipps she is met by Anna Howard, a psychiatric nurse who becomes her confidant and friend. Anna sees in Zelda a broken woman, frightened and misunderstood, likely misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Zelda yearns to pull away from Scott and at once sheds the formality of Mrs. Fitzgerald, asking Anna and others to “call me Zelda”.
Anna is in her mid 30’s and has suffered her own losses, her husband was left missing in action in WWI and she lost her five year old daughter to illness. She lives alone in Baltimore, but her parents live out in the country and she visits them often. Her brother, a priest, is just returning from Rome and he will be in Baltimore also. Her family is a warm haven for Anna, her brother a confidant and jolly reminder of life.
Zelda and Anna’s relationship grows and after some time Anna is hired by Scott as her private nurse and she practically lives with them at some points when Zelda is in a more frantic state. The relationship between Zelda and Scott is dysfunctional and manic at best, moving from overwhelming love and passion to brutally abusive words and actions. The book takes the reader along a 16 year journey between Anna and Zelda, times of constant togetherness and years of no communication, a friendship that gave both women an unending gift.
To say that I loved this book is simply not enough. I found Erika Robuck’s research and insight into the life of Zelda to be fascinating and heartfelt. I was amazed at how close I felt to Zelda through the words that Erika wrote. Taking a historical figure and creating a novel is a challenging task, but doing so and giving us a story like the one in Call Me Zelda is pure art and genius.
I had the pleasure of talking to Erika Robuck this week after I finished the book, she was as gracious as I had imagined. When I asked her how she had come up with the idea for the character Anna she told me that the discussion of nurses with Zelda had come up in much of her research and she decided to write about what that relationship might have been. Anna is a broken woman in many ways as we meet her in the book, but it’s as if as she is working to help heal Zelda and make her whole again, she is also mending her own heart and life. In the book Anna takes a journey in search of something she had once promised Zelda, and in the descriptions of the places and people Anna meets I felt like I too was on that journey of places the Fitzgeralds had lived.
Reading about the tumultuous relationship between Zelda and F. Scott was at times difficult, it was painful to read what two people who loved each other so could also do to each other. Alcohol and mental illness were a lethal combination to their marriage. Brilliant in their artistic endeavors and yet so harsh and hurtful to each other at times. I was thankful for the character of Anna, her more loving family and friends, the way she was able to see the good in Zelda and Scott amid the turmoil. One image stays with me, Robuck writes of Anna watching Scott and Zelda on a train ride, sleeping, peaceful, when you read it in the book the words just jump up and tug at your heart.
This is the second book I’ve read by the talented Erika Robuck. I have thought that HEMINGWAY’S GIRL was what brought me to adore historical fiction, rest assured this book keeps me holding fast to the love of history and to the works of Erika. I’ve given this book 5 stars, highly recommended.
Run, don’t walk to get your copy of CALL ME ZELDA I assure you this book will grab your time and not let you go until complete. Both the reader guide and interview with the author in the back of the book are worth the read also, giving us more insight into Erika’s research and craft.