Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck

Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
NAL Trade
ISBN-10: 045123992X
ISBN-13: 978-0451239921
345  pages
May 7, 2013
Last week I finished reading Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck. Having just read Ms. Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl a couple of weeks before, I was delighted to read this author’s third book. Her first book that I have yet to read was self-published, but the last two that I have read were part of a two-book publishing deal that Ms. Robuck has now fulfilled.

Call Me Zelda is a book of historical fiction about Zelda Fitzgerald as seen from the viewpoint of a caretaker, a nurse that is assigned to Zelda’s case when she enters the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore in 1932. Anna Howard, the psychiatric nurse, narrates the turbulent times of both Zelda’s life and her own. Anna had survived the death of her husband in World War I, as well as the death of their child that her husband never knew about 5 years later from pneumonia. Being assigned to Zelda’s case gave her work new meaning—not only does Anna take care of Zelda, but they become friends as well. What a great idea for a novel by Ms. Robuck—we get to see the dynamics of Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda’s relationship, as well as following Anna’s own unique fictional story.

Since I have read more than the norm about Scott, I was delighted to read about Zelda. I appreciated her constantly trying to define her own self through various means, instead just relying on Scott for her total identity. She wrote journal entries, articles, and stories (many of which were used by Scott), but never was allowed to do much completely on her own without Scott’s “direction.” I enjoyed her character most when she was taking an interest in those around her (as I am sure she probably did in real life since she did have many long term friends). I also enjoyed how Ms. Robuck characterized her as being able to easily discern other people’s personalities. Zelda also painted and danced and generally appreciated the arts.

 –painting by Zelda Fitzgerald of the Arc de Triomphe

As talented as these two people were, what a grand life they could have led for a long while if they both could have compromised more with each other. Instead, they seemed to be jealous and competitive, with Scott, of course, always having the upper hand with friends, doctors, publishers, etc. Since many women of the 1920s had more freedoms and independence than previous generations, I am sure it was hard for Zelda to conform to a more conventional life once she had her little girl, Scottie. Mental illness (Zelda) and alcoholism (Scott) did not aid the couple in their quest for long-term happiness either. Theirs is a tragic story that ended terribly for both of them.

Just when I would tire of Zelda and Scott, Anna and her own tribulations would transport me to focus on something else. Anna is truly an admirable character and I enjoyed her story. She finally finds love and happiness again, although the journey is quite painful. I was delighted to read about her parents, her brother, the doctors, a driver, and her neighbors and how she interpreted some of the other characters in the Zelda’s life. I related to Anna more than I related to Mariella in Hemingway’s Girl, probably because she was more my age and because my own mother was a psychiatric nurse, too.

I highly recommend Call Me Zelda if you want to read two good stories: one about the fictional Anna, and the other about the tragic life of Zelda.

Call Me Zelda author Erika Robuck
Here are a few passages (some about Zelda and Scott and some about Anna that I highlighted as I read):

His pretension could not hide that he felt threatened by her. Did he wish to be the only one in their marriage with any accomplishment? Did he undermine her attempts at expression? Or perhaps she antagonized him.
“Once she gets and idea in her head she won’t change it for a stack of Lincolns,” he said. “Do you know she thinks I dallied with Ernest Hemingway?”
We all looked up from our notepads.
“I did not, of course, but she’s convinced.”

“He’s gone,” she said. “My husband?”
“Yes, Mrs. Fitzgerald, he left to tend to your daughter.”
“But he can’t really leave if we don’t drop his name, can we?” she said. “Call me Zelda.”

I felt wary and ill at ease, and thought that if a schizophrenic and an alcoholic had an idea, there was a definite chance it would not be a good one.

My breath always caught when I looked at my parents’ house. It was a brown ranch style nestled among poplars and pines, with shiny green holly lining its front porch lattice in the winter and deep blue hydrangeas in the summer.

But maybe it was my selfish desire to be needed. Maybe it was their celebrity. Deep down I knew I longed for the blissful anonymity of becoming part of something beautiful and tragic and even historic—like a single stroke of paint on a large and detailed landscape.

–Zelda and Scott: the tragic couple
Words I investigated:

mazurka-a Polish dance resembling the polka, frequently adopted as a ballet form (shout out to my Mazurek friends;-))
salamander-in fiction (especially fantasy fiction), games, animation, and so on—can be categorized in three ways: as a fantastic (sometimes magical) beast with an affinity with fire; as a true fire elemental; and allusions to the salamander’s fiery nature
mutability-capability of or subjectivity to change or alteration or proneness to frequent change; inconstancy
yeti-a large, hairy, humanoid creature reputed to inhabit the Himalayas
carillon-is a musical instrument that is typically housed in the bell tower (belfry) of a church or other municipal building. The instrument consists of at least 23 cast bronze, cup-shaped bells, which are serially played to produce a melody, or sounded together to play a chord.

People I investigated:

Passage as homage to Hemingway:

During the war, I had used this technique to cope. I would walk away for just a moment, breathe, steel myself, and return. I used to pride myself on keeping grace under pressure. Other nurses envied me for it. Doctors depended on me because of it. I stood up straight and turned to face the room with more determination.

Places I investigated:

–old photo of Ellerslie