I started reading this during my read-along for The Great Gatsby because it's all about what was going on in F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and the world around him while he was writing, editing, and publishing Gatsby. I didn't have time in June to finish it because it was much more intensive and engrossing than I was expecting. I thought I'd skim through it for the more salient points, but nope, I had to read the whole thing. It was too good to skim!
The subtitle of this book, "Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby," refers to what is called the Hall-Mills murder case, a real-life unsolved murder in New Jersey that took place in 1922 right about the same time Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald moved to New York City for a time. The case was huge news, and Fitzgerald certainly read about it in the papers, for Churchwell found instances where he referred to it in correspondence and so on. The two murder victims were having an extra-marital affair with each other that bears some resemblance to Tom Buchanan's affair with Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby, and Churchwell draws out many similarities between the cases, making the point that it may have influenced Fitzgerald as he came up with the ideas behind Gatsby.
But the book is about much more than that. Churchwell also delves deeply into Gatsby and the themes of wealth, power, and social class. She shows the world around Fitzgerald that he was trying to capture and the many things and people that influenced him as a writer. Then she goes on to discuss the critical and popular reception of The Great Gatsby and how perceptions of it changed over the years. There's way more in this book than I can discuss here, so I just want to touch on two things Churchwell discussed about Gatsby that really interested me.
First, I was fascinated by the parallels she drew between the characters of Myrtle Wilson and Jay Gatsby. I had not noticed them until this, but now they're so obvious I don't see how I missed them. Churchwell succinctly says, "[Myrtle] wants what Daisy has. Myrtle is the mirror image of Gatsby, who wants what Tom has. They are both upstarts, trying to foist themselves upon high society, poseurs who lead double lives (p. 67). Myrtle does a lot of the same things he does -- wants power and position and money, tries to get a better life for herself, throws parties, runs around with a married person, and insists on believing her lover will change her life. So fascinating.
Second, Churchwill points out this interesting tidbit: "When Tom realizes that Gatsby wants to supplant him, he gives Gatsby precisely what he thought he wanted: Gatsby is put in Tom's place, taking the fall for both Buchanans' crimes, Daisy's careless driving and Tom's affair with Myrtle" (p. 281-82). Whoa. I kind of sensed that before, but never saw it so clearly until now.
This book as a whole has increased my appreciation for Fitzgerald's writing, and I definitely recommend it if you're a fan of his, or of The Great Gatsby.
Particularly Good Bits:
Their story would prove that if you make yourself up, you can be undone, as well: being self-made risks unraveling (p. xxi).
A nation so fixed on progress will always be pulled, Nick begins to see, back into nostalgia, reaching for what lies ahead yet longing for what lies behind (p. 257).
Gatsby hangs suspended between chasing the future and longing for the past: the present means nothing to him. But Daisy is defined by the present. She needs immediacy, for she dwells in the shallows of time, drifting unrestfully and without purpose from moment to moment (p. 272).
If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for discussions of alcohol abuse, violence, and sexual topics in a non-explicit way.