For my third book, I read This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald's romantic and witty first novel, was written when the author was only twenty-three years old. This semiautobiographical story of the handsome, indulged, and idealistic Princeton student Amory Blaine received critical raves and catapulted Fitzgerald to instant fame. Now, readers can enjoy the newly edited, authorized version of this early classic of the Jazz Age, based on Fitzgerald's original manuscript. In this definitive text, This Side of Paradise captures the rhythms and romance of Fitzgerald's youth and offers a poignant portrait of the "Lost Generation."
I recently read and fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald's literary masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. The beauty of the writing and just about everything in The Great Gatsby made my soul sing--within the first twenty pages, it had skyrocketed to one of my all-time favorite books. So it was with some expectation that I picked up This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald's debut novel.
Frenzied expectation is almost never a good thing--and I suppose mine did a disservice to this book. In short, I have mixed feelings about This Side of Paradise. There are parts that I loved, parts that made my eyes glaze over, parts that had such beauty in them that it was wonderful, and parts that were distinctly purple in prose but at the same time self-consciously great.
This Side of Paradise chronicles Amory Blaine's early adolescence and college years, and ends with his disillusionment in the post-Great War years. Amory is arrogant, privileged, handsome, and not quite likable. But Fitzgerald's study of his character is so in-depth and true that Amory is alive. It's well known that Fitzgerald based Amory off of himself--which is touching since Fitzgerald had the wisdom, at the tender age of 23, to realize his own faults, embellish them, and spin them into a narrative worthy of praise. This novel is just so self-conscious--where Amory is aware of his "greatness," his potential, his intellectual superiority, Fitzgerald is aware that he pens a novel that is literary to the tee.
This Side of Paradise has a wandering, intangible plot--with no clear physical obstacle. In this aspect, it's a bit like Catcher in the Rye (Salinger believed himself to be the next Fitzgerald). Instead, this story is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story in which Amory grows both emotionally and intellectually, first falls in love, and experiences the world. In this aspect, Fitzgerald is utterly triumphant--This Side of Paradise is a flawless vignette of American youth, of the Lost Generation, and of the social years of change that characterized those times. This book has a historical air to it--readers get a glimpse of a Princeton that held nothing but men of privilege, the snobbery of the elite, and the making of the Flapper.
It's a marvel to catch a glimpse of Fitzgerald before his prose has fully matured to what it was in The Great Gatsby. That is not to say that This Side of Paradise is not well-written--but it lacks the lyricism and utter beauty that blew me away in the later Fitzgerald's work. There are glimmers of the beauty throughout the book--not quite there, hidden almost, but enough is in there to make it worthwhile.
This Side of Paradise is disjointed, but purposefully so. Half of it's in narrative form, other bits are interspersed with almost-entirely tedious bursts of poetry, there are a few letters cobbled in, and twenty pages or so are written entirely in dramatic form. I can see some readers having problems with the utter lack of unity, the parts where the narrative skips to focus on specific incidents that prove to be important in Amory's life. But I didn't have a problem with it--in fact, I think it's one of the best aspects of the book, and it's wonderful how the disjointness is a reflection upon Amory and his journey. However, I will say that some of the philosophical meanderings of Amory were insufferable--these were the parts that interfered with his actual story. However, I'll say that I loved this part:
"It's true," Burne agreed. "The light-haired man is a higher type, generally speaking. I worked the thing out with the Presidents of the United States once, and found that way over half of them were light-haired--yet think of the preponderant number of brunettes in the race."Bits like the above caused me to really think, to admire Fitzgerald's insight. At the same time, he fell into the trap of trying to be too philosphical, too literary. The prose however is well-crafted, and this words were beautiful at times. One of my favorite, admittedly purple passages:
"People unconsciously admit it,' said Amory. "You'll notice a blond person is expected to talk. If a blond girl doesn't talk we call her a a 'doll'; if a light-haired man is silent he's considered stupid. Yet the world is full of 'dark silent men' and 'languorous brunettes' who haven't a brain in their heads, but somehow are never accused of the dearth."
"The February streets, wind-washed by the night,, blow full of strange half-intermittent damps, bearing on wasted walks in shining sight wet snow plashed into gleams under the lamps, like golden oil from some divine machine in an hour of thaw and stars."
I don't think I'd have had half the patience to soldier through if I hadn't read The Great Gatsby beforehand. I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who hasn't read The Great Gatsby first--but I think that once you fall in love with Fitzgerald you can endure just about anything. What I think is horribly ironic is that in Fitzgerald's time, This Side of Paradise was regarded to be his ultimate success, and The Great Gatsby his failure. I don't know what was going on in the psychology of the people in the 20's--it's unimaginable how that came about. Perhaps it's because it was such a dynamo during that time period, exposing how woman were coming into their own--but viewed from the 21st century, it's lost many of it's charms.
So I've spent a lot of words half-praising, half criticizing this book. It's because it's so darn hard for me to decide what this book means to me. I'll summarize with this: It's disjointed in it's genius.
Teenage Ignoramus Scoop:
I labbbs the flappers :D
Rating on the Classics Scale: I'd give this a 7.5-8/10. While flawed and dull at times, there a bits of true literary genius that make it a classic.