Tender is the Night

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

8/10

I found this more interesting than The Great Gatsby, but I still have a hard time really caring about rich socialites from the early 20th century. The tone and content reminded me a little of Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky and certain stories from Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom, but Bowles seems to be a stronger writer than Fitzgerald, and Camus’s short story format seems to be more suitable for the specific theme treated in Tender.

There are some things I really liked about the book. Fitzgerald’s language is florid if inconsistent, and certain passages, analogies, etc. were very impressive. The following, for example, is brilliant:

Somewhere around Zug, Nicole, with a convulsive effort, reiterated a remark she had made before about a misty yellow house set back from the road that looked like a painting not yet dry, but it was just an attempt to catch at a rope that was playing out too swiftly. (191)

What an image! Or how about this strange but kinda perfect analogy:

England was like a rich man after a disastrous orgy who makes up to the household by chatting with them individually, when it is obvious to them that he is only trying to get back his self-respect in order to usurp his former power. (195)

The strongest parts of the book are the psychological insights Fitzgerald drew into the Diver relationship as a whole and each member individually. A good example is the exchange between the two late in the book:

-“. . . Some of the time I think it’s my fault — I’ve ruined you.”
-“So I’m ruined, am I?” he asked pleasantly.
-“I didn’t mean that. But you used to want to create things — now you seem to want to smash them up.”
She trembled at criticizing him in these broad terms — but his enlarging silence frightened her even more. She guessed that something was developing behind the silence, behind the hard, blue eyes, the almost unnatural interest in the children. Uncharacteristic bursts of temper surprised her — he would suddenly unroll a large scroll of contempt for some person, race, class, way of life, way of thinking. It was as though an incalculable story was telling itself inside him, about which she could only guess at in the moments when it broke through the surface. (267)

Toward the end there’s another passage that deals directly with Nicole:

. . . she knew that for her the greatest sin now and in the future was to delude herself. It had been a long lesson but she had learned it. Either you think — or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you. (290-91)

Also, I thought the overall structure of the book was compelling even if Fitzgerald doesn’t seem to have fully pulled it off. Introducing the Divers (specifically Nicole) through Rosemary’s less sympathetic perspective and then later switching to their personal perspective was an effective way of developing both of them as a couple and later as individuals. Fitzgerald was thus able to maintain a certain level of mystery around some major issues in their relationship while also effectively manipulating the reader into feeling more sympathy for Nicole by the end of the book.

Sometimes, however, the mystery seemed forced and the narrative just became confusing. A good example of this is (SPOILER. . . . . . .) when Nicole wrenched the car off the road, which is written as if the car just swerves of its own accord. At other times it became oddly over-explanatory, as on p.267 when Fitzgerald very jarringly decides to give the reader a culinary lesson by describing a bouillabaisse, or earlier when Dick is listening in on a conversation and realizes it’s about a friend. Instead of just revealing it through dialogue, Fitzgerald is sure to mention, “It was the first indication Dick had that they were talking about Abe North.” (199)

As a full disclaimer, I must admit that part of my dislike of this over-explanation comes from recently reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy, who falls at the other end of this spectrum. To me it just seems a more intelligent way to write and to treat your audience. I prefer the mystery and the ambiguity. And in Tender I’m actually okay with the mystery that’s there, with not knowing precisely what McKisco saw in the Diver’s bathroom, or understanding how exactly Diver “betrayed” his son concerning dirty bath water. This is all fine and well. But there seems to be an inconsistent (and untenable) back-and-forth among the two styles (mystery v. explanation) which doesn’t sit well with me.

Additionally, the change in voice, which worked well on occasion, was more often just jarring. This again comes back to personal taste, where I very rarely encounter a way to radically shift between multiple characters without completely killing whatever reading momentum I have going. Very often it ruins a book for me and here it definitely kept me at arm’s length as I was really wanting to engage more with the characters.

Ultimately, this is a somewhat interesting double character study that suffers from being about neurotic rich folk, which is probably the least sympathetic demographic I can imagine. Again, I think Bowles treats this topic much more effectively in Sheltering Sky, albeit 15 years after Fitzgerald’s attempt. I’m glad I read it so that I know a little better what Fitzgerald was about; and while I don’t want to rush to judging him as a person or author after reading only two of his novels, neither do I feel any real desire to get to know him further.

 

Update: I changed this from 3 to 4 stars after learning that it’s largely autobiographical, making it not just an interesting character study but a devastating confession. Below is my original three-star review, which I leave intact because my criticisms are primarily stylistic and therefore still applicable.

 
Original Review

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