Sharing Stories – Tender is the Night – GUEST

Leeds Book Club will be participating in the Arts and Minds Network‘s new project on raising awareness of mental health issues. 

This cracking review is provided to us by regular book clubber, blogger and all round fabulous human being – @Becca_Lou18


BLURB (from Amazon)

In the wake of World War I, a community of expatriate American writers established itself in the salons and cafes of 1920s Paris. They congregated at Gertrude Stein’s select soirees, drank too much, married none too wisely, and wrote volumes–about the war, about the Jazz Age, and often about each other. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were part of this gang of literary Young Turks, and it was while living in France that Fitzgerald began writing Tender Is the Night. Begun in 1925, the novel was not actually published until 1934. By then, Fitzgerald was back in the States and his marriage was on the rocks, destroyed by Zelda’s mental illness and alcoholism. Despite the modernist mandate to keep authors and their creations strictly segregated, it’s difficult not to look for parallels between Fitzgerald’s private life and the lives of his characters, psychiatrist Dick Diver and his former patient turned wife, Nicole. Certainly the hospital in Switzerland where Zelda was committed in 1929 provided the inspiration for the clinic where Diver meets, treats, and then marries the wealthy Nicole Warren. And Fitzgerald drew both the European locale and many of the characters from places and people he knew from abroad.In the novel, Dick is eventually ruined–professionally, emotionally, and spiritually–by his union with Nicole. Fitzgerald’s fate was not quite so novelistically neat: after Zelda was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and committed, Fitzgerald went to work as a Hollywood screenwriter in 1937 to pay her hospital bills. He died three years later – not melodramatically, like poor Jay Gatsby in his swimming pool, but prosaically, while eating a chocolate bar and reading a newspaper. Of all his novels,Tender Is the Night is arguably the one closest to his heart. As he himself wrote, “Gatsby was a tour de force, but this is a confession of faith.” 

The first time I tried to read Tender is the Night I gave up. I’d previously read The Great Gatsby and I loved Fitzgerald’s writing style but found the characters slightly lacking (perhaps this is intentional by Fitzgerald to reflect the glamorous but ultimately shallow society they embodied). Knowing that Tender is the Night has semi-autobiographical elements I had high hopes that it would have much more depth in its characters. Despite me desperately wanting to enjoy it, I struggled to make any progress. When LeedsBookClub mentioned that it was one of the books on the mental health reading list I asked if I could review it – possibly the motivation of reviewing the book would help me power through and get it read.

So it was with slightly mixed feelings that I picked up Tender is the Night for a second time (this time on Kindle) back in June (giving myself plenty of time in case it was a slog). This time I didn’t struggle quite so much. Although I vaguely recollected the main plot points, oddly it felt like reading the story from fresh and I was pleasantly surprised by how much easier I found it to get into.

Tender is the Night is centred on the relationship of Dick and Nicole Diver, a beautiful young couple who everyone wants to be around. We are first introduced to the Divers through Rosemary, a stunning young actress fresh from her first film who is visiting the French Riviera with her mother. 

Straight away it is clear that anyone who is anyone wants to be friends with the Divers, who hold their court on the beach by day and by invitation to their villa by night. They are what make the Riviera a place worth being. Rosemary soon finds herself brought into the fold, becoming fast friends with Nicole and completely in love with Dick. Although the Divers’ lives appear perfect it is clear there are cracks in their relationship and one night at a party at the Divers’ villa, a guest witnesses an  “incident” in the bathroom, suggesting that things aren’t quite how the Divers make out. 

The book is split into three parts with the second part detailing the background of the Divers and how they met (there is also a version of the book with events in chronological order). We discover that Nicole, abused by her father, was admitted to a clinic in Switzerland as a teenager. There she meets Dick, a poor but talented psychiatrist visiting the clinic, and quickly forms an attachment. 

Seeing this as an opportunity to assist her recovery, Nicole is encouraged to write letters to Dick after he leaves. When Dick eventually returns he realises that he has fallen in love with Nicole, becoming both her carer and husband. When Nicole’s father dies, she and her sister, Baby, inherit his fortune and it is this which allows the Divers to fund their lavish lifestyle. Despite their luxurious life on the Riviera, Dick is keen to return to his research and Nicole and Baby agree to fund setting up his own clinic. For a time all seems well with the family living at the clinic but it soon becomes apparent that Nicole’s mental health is deteriorating and Dick is drinking far more than he used to. 

This comes to a head when Nicole attempts to crash the family’s car on the way back from a family outing. Dick’s business partner convinces him to take a sabbatical and he returns to America for his father’s funeral. On his return to Europe Dick crosses paths with Rosemary. Although she is now older and wiser, no longer holding Dick in the high regard she once did, they quickly start an affair. 

Dick continues to spiral into alcoholism, resenting Nicole and her family for making him feel like a kept man. Nicole, no longer able to see Dick as anything other than her doctor is seduced by Tommy, part of the Riviera set, who has always had a thing for her. Eventually Nicole is faced with an ultimatum – her husband or her lover. 

I felt that there was much more depth to the characters in this than in Gatsby. Fitzgerald very much focuses on the dynamic between Dick and Nicole. Their romance was born out of Nicole’s illness and at times she struggles to separate her husband and lover from her doctor and carer. Eventually this leads to the demise of their marriage as Nicole feels she no longer needs the support that Dick has always represented. Nicole is central to the story yet a complete enigma to the reader. We never really know her motivations, seeing her only through the eyes of others (namely Dick and Rosemary). Everyone treats her as fragile, not least her overbearing sister Baby (I imagine her as Katharine Hepburn-esque), who cannot accept that any man, let alone a poor doctor, could be good enough for her little sister. Nicole’s eventual decision between Dick and Tommy signifies how much she has grown as a person. It is not clear whether she has really recovered from her schizophrenia but her decision marks her own belief in herself and her ability to conduct a relationship that is not, in part, based on her mental frailty.

Dick could be viewed as a romantic hero who saves Nicole from a clinic, giving her the opportunity to love and live in the real world; or an unscrupulous doctor who marries his patient for her money then succumbs to alcoholism. To me, Dick is a little bit of both but on the whole I found myself rooting for him. I desperately wanted things to work out between him and Nicole (though I admit that I am a complete romantic) and I found that I resented Rosemary for the part she might have played in the disintegration of the Divers’ relationship. However, this is perhaps unfair on Rosemary whose affair with Dick, despite her best efforts, only really starts when his relationship with Nicole has already passed the point of no return. I think at times Fitzgerald’s characters are difficult to grasp and can be somewhat lost in his grandiose prose. Yet I found I felt far more strongly about these characters than in Gatsby. Dick and Nicole present themselves to the world as a perfect power couple and yet both are battling their demons but do so alone. Although Dick’s alcoholism appears very much polite to the modern reader (though possibly more shocking at the time of publication) it is clear that it alienates him from his former friends. 

Despite being published in 1934 I felt that overall the writing had aged well and had a contemporary feel. There were some references that reflected its time – for example references to “negros” and Dick’s patients including a homosexual man (homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in 1973). I found the prose beautifully descriptive, sometimes completely absorbing but at others it completely washed over me like a wave and I struggled to grasp the story. I found it easy to picture the setting of the French coastline and Swiss clinic. Fitzgerald is brilliant at capturing the essence of his settings and I found myself longing to visit the south of France. However, I found that I had to really concentrate at times to keep with the thread of the story and this made reading in busy places such as my train to work difficult. It’s not easy to pick the book straight back up – I often had to refresh where I was in order to get back into it.

It goes without saying that mental health features strongly in this book, with a good proportion of the story set in mental health clinics. This was a very different era of mental health. Psychology was still a reasonably new field. Nicole is said to be schizophrenic, brought on by the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Mental illness is complex and not well understood even now but I can’t help but wonder if modern doctors would view this as a cause of Nicole’s condition. In some cases Dick and his colleagues are simply exploiting the rich, treating their children but taking a dim view of whether there is actually anything wrong with them. Of all his patients, the one Dick takes a personal interest in is the “woman with the scabs” who is not just a rich kid but has a genuine illness. 

This exploitation on the part of the clinics is probably a reflection of Fitzgerald’s own experiences with clinics through the treatment of his wife, Zelda. Fitzgerald often struggled to pay for his wife’s treatment, borrowing money from friends as well as writing short stories as a means of paying clinic fees. It is likely that Tender is the Night is a fairly accurate picture of treatment in the 1920s. 

Zelda, like Nicole, was schizophrenic and it is very easy to draw comparisons between the Divers and the Fitzgeralds. Fitzgerald was not financially secure enough to be accepted by Zelda’s family as an appropriate suitor for their daughter, possibly captured in the novel by Baby’s dislike of Dick. Fitzgerald was also an alcoholic and as with Dick, spiralled into alcoholism before reaching his full potential. 

Whilst in Tender is the Night Dick fades away and Nicole finds happiness with her new life, the fate of the Fitzgeralds was an altogether darker affair. Scott died aged 44 from a heart attack, no doubt in part caused by his heavy drinking. Zelda tragically died in a fire at the hospital she was being treated at – she was locked in her room awaiting electroshock therapy for her mental illness.


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