What I’m Reading – Tender Is The Night By F. Scott Fitzgerald
Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
I recently finished teaching a unit on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s’ The Great Gatsby to a class of tenth graders. Having enjoyed Gatsby more than I had the previous times I’d read it, I decided to venture forth and read another work by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I chose Tender Is The Night, Fitzgerald’s last completed novel, and according to some, his most autobiographical.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896. He wrote the majority of his novels and short stories in the 1920s and would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. He didn’t benefit from this reputation while he was alive, however. Tender Is The Night was published in 1934, and it was not a commercial success.
Fitzgerald eventually turned to writing screenplays, but was hindered by deteriorating health due to his alcoholism. His wife Zelda, in and out of various mental institutions, added more stress to his life. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940 at the age of 44.
Tender Is The Night tells the story of a young psychiatrist Dick Diver who falls in love with his patient Nicole and marries her. In fact, when the book opens they are already married, and the history of how they meet and fall in love is told in flashback. They spend their summers in the South of France, and it’s there they meet a young American actress, Rosemary Hoyt.
Rosemary enjoys the Divers’ company, and she falls in love with Dick, but this is no ordinary love story. Dick does not act on his feeling towards Rosemary until much later. Tender Is The Night is the story of how Dick and Nicole’s relationship evolves over the years, how Dick becomes weaker, developing a troubling drinking problem, while Nicole becomes stronger, working out the issues which have hounded her earlier in life. In the end, the Divers are hardly the captivating couple Rosemary meets at the beginning of the book.
I have to admit, while I did enjoy parts of Tender Is The Night, I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as The Great Gatsby. Gatsby has definitely grown on me over the years— I’ve read it several times now— so perhaps I’ll need to read Tender Is The Night again before I can fully appreciate it.
I definitely appreciate Fitzgerald’s writing style, and I have little doubt that he is genuinely one of the 20th century’s best writers. Tender Is The Night is an ambitious novel. Fitzgerald’s writing here is very dense, in that there is often a lot happening on each page. As such, it’s a very slow read. He jam packs lots of information, creative writing techniques and styles and plot points all on one page, and he does this in a way that makes sense and doesn’t exhaust.
I was also impressed by his keen observations of a very young film industry. This was written in 1934, don’t forget. He comments about actors gaining fame and importance because of the nation’s need for entertainment during the past decade, in a scene where Dick Diver visits the set of one of Rosemary’s movies:
“It was like visiting a great turbulent family. An actress approached Dick and talked to him for five minutes under the impression that he was an actor recently arrived from London. Discovering her mistake she scuttled away in panic. The majority of the company felt either sharply superior or sharply inferior to the world outside, but the former feeling prevailed. They were people of bravery and industry; they were risen to a position of prominence in a nation that for a decade had wanted only to be entertained.”
Obviously, this trend has continued up through the present day, and so that quote could be amended to say that for the past century we have wanted only to be entertained, and thus we have placed actors and entertainers at the top of our social order.
But the bottom line is Tender Is The Night just doesn’t tell as compelling a story as The Great Gatsby. There’s no one character quite like Gatsby in Tender Is The Night. Gatsby is mysterious, suave, unknown, and like his numerous party guests who try to guess his past and wonder at all the rumors, we the readers indulge in the same behaviors. Where did he get all his money? Did he really kill a man? Is he a con artist or an astute businessman?
In Tender Is The Night, Dick Diver, while fairly interesting, doesn’t generate anywhere near the same interest or line of questioning that Gatsby does. Diver’s story is much more straightforward. His is a tale of downward spiral. He starts off with the most honorable intentions, falls in love with and marries his patient Nicole, later has an affair with actress Rosemary, and eventually falls down a doomed path of alcoholism and depression, causing him to lose everything. Sad, but nowhere near as compelling at the mysteries surrounding Gatsby.
Likewise, the entire story here doesn’t compare to The Great Gatsby, where you have a passionate love story and ultimately a tale of murder. Tender Is Night is the study of two people’s lives, Dick and Nicole, and it tracks their life journeys as they move in opposite directions.
I did enjoy both Nicole and Rosemary better than the shallow Daisy in The Great Gatsby. I’ve always wondered just what it was that Gatsby saw in Daisy. Here, I can easily see what Dick Diver sees in both Nicole and Rosemary.
As a work of literature, Tender Is The Night is a worthwhile read. You can learn a lot about writing by reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nearly each page in the novel offers something of value.
But as an entertaining read, Tender Is The Night stumbles, and I suspect this is the reason for its initial failure. It is a depressing love story, one that you’re not about to take to the beach with you for a fun summer read.
Tender Is The Night is great for literature buffs, writers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald fans, but for the casual reader not so much.
Of course, if you are in the mood for a challenging read, and you’re dealing with relationship woes of your own, you might enjoy reading the story of Dick Diver, a remarkable man with enormous potential, whose life eventually goes down the toilet because of relationships he couldn’t handle.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.