Careless People by Sarah Churchwell
When this book first came out I was alerted to its existence by Sam Baker over on her blog. Now Sam and I seem to have similar tastes in books, and with the subject being Scott Fitzgerald I needed no more of a push to rush out and buy it. It’s taken me a few months to get around to reading it as this summer was so hectic, but read it I did, and having just finished it I just had to review it.
I will tell no lie… the 1920s is an era that has always fascinated me, from the emergence of cinema and the social attitudes following the Great War, through to the fashion and the music, I love it all. But loving a decade that was full of contradictions doesn’t necessarily mean I will love every book written about it. In fact I have come across some stinkers in my time. This book is not one of them.
Careless People isn’t just a biography of Scott Fitzgerald, it’s the biography of New York in 1922. We have Scott and Zelda’s life entwined with Great Neck, Long Island, an affluent peninsula a short drive from New York (and the fictionalised West Egg of Gatsby) running alongside each chapter of The Great Gatsby, which in turn weaves around one of the most fantastic real-life double murders of the decade.
As Churchwell deftly moves through the year, we see that what was happening around Fitzgerald brought inspiration for what is undoubtedly the most accomplished novel of the Jazz Age. From their arrival in Manhattan from the Mid West, in September 1922, the book winds its way through parties, projects and the many personalities that leant weight to the book that would become The Great Gatsby. Written a couple of years later, it would only gain the recognition it deserved after Fitzgerald’s early death.
The work that has gone into this biography is astounding in its detail – it’s no wonder that Sarah took four years to write it. The notes and bibliography section show that this was a labour of love, and one that required painstaking research and hours spent in libraries and archives. As a result she has produced what must be the definitive biography of Jay Gatsby and his author. But it is also an account of a shocking double murder that occurred just as the Fitzgeralds were arriving in New York for their “comfortable but dangerous and deteriorating year at Great Neck”.
This is not a dry book to read, as some biographies often are. We switch between Scott, Gatsby and the Hall-Mills murder, learning new things as we go along. The parties that the Fitzgeralds attended, and gave, obviously fed the inspiration, as did the acquaintances and friends they picked up along the way. The murder, retold in the newspapers of the day, was unavoidable for anyone living in the New York area, and also fed the imagination. We follow Scott and Zelda through their year, and onwards to the publication of The Great Gatsby and their inevitable decline.
I defy anyone not to like this book. We learn so much about the man who gave us not only Gatsby, but who also gave us a window onto life in the 20s through his other novels. Sarah Churchwell’s writing style is both informative and easy – she brings us into her world of research while making the book a joy to read – there is no plodding through to the end here. Her enthusiasm makes for easy reading but Careless People would also be an asset to anyone studying The Great Gatsby.
Whether you are interested in Fitzgerald or the 1920s, in Gatsby or what inspires a writer, or if you are an English or history student I would heartily recommend this book. You don’t get much better than this.