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'Beautiful Fools': Author explores the downfall of Fitzgerald, wife

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There comes a time, whether we like it or not, when we grow into someone new. The person we were at 17 is not the person we are at 47. Arguably, we do not change in the ways that matter — our sensibilities, our charms, our hearts — but change, it seems, is inevitable.

However, there are some who prefer to cling to the past, two of the most famous examples being F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda. Huge stars in the 1920s, alcoholism and mental illness threatened (and eventually destroyed) them in the 1930s. Both spent their final years looking backwards, desperate for a way to return.

This delicate time in their marriage is carefully explored in R. Clifton Spargo’s debut novel “Beautiful Fools” (Overlook Hardcover, 368 pages, $26.95). The novel centers around a hypothetical situation: What if Scott and Zelda took a trip to Cuba in 1939 as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage — and, arguably, themselves?

It’s clear from the outset this will not be an easy journey. Zelda’s doctor tells Scott: “I have read your stories. You are like the sculptor Pygmalion in the ancient myth, creating your wife and yourself in the image of what you might be, believing in youth as a promise. To be young is to be invulnerable. And neither of you — she more desperately than you, perhaps — can let go of what you were promised.”

While Spargo does heartbreaking work with the Fitzgeralds (including a moving passage when Zelda goes missing), he does struggle to establish a central conflict in the novel. Secondary plotlines are introduced and multiple points of view are explored, only to be dropped later in the text. However, even these divergences are pleasurable reading thanks to Spargo’s rich descriptions of Cuba, which read like a 1930s travelogue.

Meticulously researched, “Beautiful Fools” is a wonderful exploration of a great American writer and his marriage: both what it was and what it could have been.

Book reading

  • What: R. Clifton Spargo will read “Beautiful Fools”
  • When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
  • Where: Barnes & Noble Bookseller, 333 Collins Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids
  • Cost: Free

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