Some years ago now I won a beautiful set of Alma Classics’ reprints of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four novels. Since then I have slowly worked my way through them. Starting with, undoubtedly the most famous, The Great Gatsby, followed by Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and Damned. Having struggled with the generally unlikeable characters, it was with some trepidation that I picked up the final book in my set: This Side of Paradise.
Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920 and was an instant critical and commercial success. It charts the life of Amory Blaine, an ambitious young man loosely based on the author himself, who grows up in a well-heeled Midwest home, boards at St Regis’ and then goes on to study at Princeton, where he starts frequenting the circles of high society as an aspiring writer. However as Amory experiences failure and frustrations in his college work, love life and his career, his youthful enthusiasm gradually descends into disillusionment, cynicism and a life of idle dissolution.
Unfortunately my fears were proved to be correct: Amory Blaine is not a particularly likeable character… From the start he is an odd, lonely and aloof child, due a lot to his unusual relationship with his mother, who he is always refers to as Beatrice. When a kindly professor at St Regis’ tries to advise him on making friends he scornfully refuses his help, because he sees himself as above his peers. Then in Princeton his egotistical traits just flourish! However during this time he does make friends with the outgoing Kerry Holiday; Kerry’s hardworking brother Burne, and the diligent writer Tom D’Invilliers.
Sadly many of his friendships dwindle and disappear, as Amory can’t seem to make decisive decisions and refuses to believe he may need to change or adapt. This is much the same reason for his doomed love affairs too. First with the vacuous Isabelle; then the virtuous Clara; next the spoilt Rosalind and finally, the rebellious, maybe a little unhinged, Eleanor. Although I must admit I found it all quite gripping – particularly by the genuine love that Amory shared with Rosalind and the terrible choice that she had to make for both their sakes.
Of course there is reason for our unlikeable Amory, his heartache and his feckless, high living: Fitzgerald was writing a critical account of the era he was living in. While to us looking back the Jazz Age is a time of glamour, glitz and hedonism, Fitzgerald digs deeper under the thin, superficial veneer to the darker side beneath. Here are the themes of disillusionment, addiction and depression that would go on to feature in all his major works. All of which is brought to life in some beautiful prose, but for me to love it I just needed a little ray of hope. Instead I reached the end to find no real hope or resolution for poor Amory!
In conclusion, I thought This Side of Paradise was a beautifully written, sometimes gripping, satirical portrait of the golden Jazz Age. While I don’t think Fitzgerald’s work is really for me, I am glad I persevered because these are important works of literature and social commentary. Okay read.
Have you read this? Or any of Fitzgerald’s other novels? Fan or not?
This is book 1/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.