Monday 1 July 2013

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Actually that’s my secret — I can’t even talk about you to anybody because I don’t want any more people to know how wonderful you are.” 

Three main thoughts circulated my mind while struggling to labor through this insufferable 315 page snore-fest: 1) the protagonist's unfortunate name of Dick Diver; 2) I should probably be doing something more constructive with my time; 3) When is this damn novel going to end so I can read something else? I usually have no qualms to abandon a book if it fails to captivate me within the first 50 pages or so but I felt a misplaced sense of obligation to finish Tender is the Night because
I was interested in reading more from F. Scott Fitzgerald after enjoying The Great Gatsby and I was hoping the story would eventually develop into something meaningful, but alas, absolutely nothing of serious value ever materialized. Fitzgerald is often heralded as one of the "great writers" of the 20th century but after reading this dull piece of literary hogwash, I am beginning to think that he may been a one-hit wonder. Granted, I have yet to read any of his earlier novels such as This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned or any of his short stories, but I have come to the conclusion that he is not a writer for me. 

After forcing myself to slug through this tedious and self-indulgent novel, it occurred to me how much value I actually place on a good story that is well-told. Of course, there are exceptions such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner whom I adore for their experimental prose where in some cases, the plot is an afterthought (or nonexistent) but their works are often still fascinating because they contain tremendous depth; their aesthetic literary techniques, the underlying philosophical and thematic framework, piercing insight into the human condition, or even the sheer beauty of the prose is more than enough to keep my attention. However, when it comes to Fitzgerald--or more specifically, Tender is the Night--his story-telling capabilities come across as utterly insipid; the writing tends to be painfully verbose and repetitive. He has brief moments of stylistic ingenuity and is capable of writing poetic aphorisms but it is not enough to sustain such an innocuous narrative that goes nowhere.

The story is semi-autobiographical and focuses on the disintegrating marriage of an exceedingly rich American couple, Dick and Nicole Diver, as they strut around Europe as expatriates completely impervious to the Great Depression. It is difficult to empathize with these snobbish and selfish aristocrats whose only concerns involve socializing with other wealthy elites, fine dining and making sure their wine glasses never run empty. Blah. At one point, Nicole makes an absurd remark about their social position: "I think we should do something spectacular. I feel that all our lives have been too restrained" (274). Give me a break. Living an extravagant life of luxury and hedonism on the French Riviera far away from the abject poverty afflicting America during the Depression must be a real drag. 

Enter Rosemary Hoyt, a pretty young American actress who is traveling across Europe to make a movie and happens to be staying at the same hotel as the Divers. After meeting on the beach, she falls head over heels for Dick (this sounds wrong or perhaps I should say, "she falls head over heels for the protagonist") and as expected, they eventually have an affair but this only occurs five years later without any serious repercussions. The novel is split into three sections--the first part deals mostly with Rosemary and her relationship to the Divers that starts off promising but quickly dissolves into banality. The second section is a flashback and the most interesting part of the novel as it details the early relationship between Dick and Nicole. He is a highly renowned psychiatrist and she becomes both his wife and patient. The character of Nicole is based on Fitzgerald's wife Zelda who suffered from mental illness her entire life. The narrative technique to include a lengthy and disjointed monologue from Nicole that traces the couple's young married life is one of the few redeeming aspects of the novel. It's a shame that the narrative quickly goes downhill from there. The third section brings us back to the present where Dick finds himself on the path of self-destruction as his marriage and life of affluence begins to crumble. Nicole's decision at the end of the novel to have an affair with one of their close friends is inevitable but also feels rushed.

Fitzgerald considered Tender in the Night to be his greatest literary achievement and according to the introduction, it represents "a confession of faith." While I respect him for writing something so personal, the novel's haughty sentimentalism is nothing short of irritating. In what should have been a gut-wrenching and powerful moving story left me indifferent. If anything, at least the title is elegant and a reference to my favorite poem of all time: "An Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats. Fitzgerald definitely had good taste in poetry.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.


  1. This made me laugh. So it sounds as dull as Save Me The Waltz. Your review has saved me the trouble of comparing, I definitely don't want to read Tender is the Night after this. I had heard it was really good, though..!

  2. I heard this was an excellent read as well...boy was I disappointed, haha. If you eventually decid to check it out, don't say I didn't warn you! :P

  3. I wanted to read this so I don't think I do at all!

  4. Heh. Dick Diver.

    I started reading "This Side of Paradise" last year and then just wasn't a very interesting story. I really enjoy "Great Gatsby," but maybe everything else will be a letdown.

  5. Tiffany: If you ever do get around to reading this, I'd like to know what you think about it, positive or negative. I just wouldn't classify it as a priority but that's just me...

    Ruby: Ha, call me immature but that name is just so unintentionally hilarious. I'm surprised there was no mention of him being teased at all for having a name like that.

    I have heard his short stories are pretty good but he wrote them for primarily for money since he was broke near the end of his life so who knows if his financial situation had an impact on the quality of the writing.

  6. Definitely found myself nodding along in agreement whilst reading this! I'm not sure why I felt so compelled to finish it but I think it is something to do with how much I love Gatsby (although I hated that on the first read). I'm going to try some of his short stories though and see if they avoid his 'haughty sentimentalism', as you so brilliantly put it. I must say, I did far prefer Save Me the Waltz.

  7. I think I might switch to his short stories collection after this (have read The Great Gatsby & Tender is the Night). Some people say Fitzgerald is much better in writing short stories. Let's see if it's true!

  8. Fanda and Ellie, please let me know if his short-stories prove to be more endearing than his novels. I don't want to give up on Fitzgerald just yet.