SHELF LIFE- Rewriting history: Preston explores Fitzgerald's romance

Gatsby's Girl

By Caroline Preston
320 pages, $24

Houghton Mifflin


Biography is sometimes even better than fiction. A story about a bullfight can be more compelling if we know the writer had masculinity issues, just as a story about high society can be more compelling if we know that its author emerged from the working class.

In this way, there are often two dimensions to the appeal of great fiction- the appeal of the story and the intrigue behind its teller.

Consider the mythology of the figures of the Jazz Age: we all know Hemingway liked to hunt, T.S. Eliot was a prude, and Gertrude Stein was an eccentric and extravagant hostess. F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night), one might also remember, was a restless romantic ruined by drink.

Writer Caroline Preston, a librarian and archivist turned novelist, revives our collective memory of Fitzgerald in her novel adaptation of "the stories behind the story." This third novel by Preston, a Charlottesville resident, is a work of historical fiction based on an early romance that had a profound impact on Fitzgerald's life and work.

The dust jacket of Gatsby's Girl features a woman in 1920s garb, standing with outstretched hand amid a flock of birds. The woman's expression is pensive and wistful- a look that embodies, if somewhat melodramatically, our ever-present sentimentality for the past and our dreamy fascination with literary icons.

The cover girl is presumably Ginevra Perry, the protagonist from whose perspective the story is told. She's apparently based on an early flame of Fitzgerald's named Ginevra King, who served as a model for many of his female characters: Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Isabelle in This Side of Paradise, and Marjorie in the short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair."

The novel spans Ginevra's life from girlhood to adult, from her romance with Fitzgerald to their uncongenial break-up ("She ended up throwing me over with the most supreme indifference and boredom," he wrote), through her unhappy and loveless marriage to a rich Chicago boy.

In the last part of the novel, Ginevra is a middle-aged woman who wonders about what might have been. Preston imagines Ginevra reading Fitzgerald's novels and finding the unflattering reflections of her own character.

With Gatsby's Girl, Preston continues a stylistic approach developed in her first novel, Jackie by Josie. Drawing on her experience as a manuscript librarian, Preston uses actual correspondence from library collections to imaginatively recreate the details of a historical figure's personal life.

Preston gives the reader an insider's access to a few enticing biographical tidbits. We're charmed by the news, for example, that Fitzgerald had some difficulty spelling: definite is "definate," and illegible is "illegable." The incorporation of Fitzgerald's letters is the book's real appeal, lending credibility to the narrative while adding weight to Preston's own imaginative recreation.

Ginevra's encounter and romance with Fitzgerald seem to be of much the same character as the layman's relationship with the Jazz Age icon, and with literary figures in general. She's smitten by the writer's charm, talent, and candor, but is also wary of the volatility and unpredictability of his character.

One hears Preston's voice when, after reading one of Fitzgerald's letters, Ginevra says, "This is what a true writer does, I decided. Makes real life better than it is."

As much could be said for Preston, who proves her talent by making a real-life drama better and more entertaining than it probably was. No matter the details of Fitzgerald's love affair with Ginevra, "the story behind the story" is also, at least to a degree, a work of fiction.
Caroline Preston reads from Gatsby's Girl at 5:30pm Friday, May 5, at the New Dominion Bookshop, 404 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall.