Like many people, I read The Great Gatsby as a set text for my classes in English. And while it didn’t have the impact on me that books like The Outsider, I did still thoroughly enjoy it. So, while browsing the shelves at the independent bookshop that has parted me from more of my money than I would like to admit, I noticed a book that combined F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, it seemed like a good way to look into more of his works. Plus, I have a fondness for the Roaring Twenties, so what could go wrong?
This Side of Paradise follows Amory Blaine, the only son of wealthy parents, from his early adolescence to young adulthood, a period of time that covers his time at Princeton, fighting in the First World War, and several love affairs with beautiful but unattainable women.
If you’re a dedicated reader of any kind, it sometimes occurs that you are hit with the unassailable certainty that you are reading the first piece of long-form writing that the author has published. Oftentimes this is due to some part of the construction being noticeably unpolished, and after a lot of practice I have found that the feeling is very rarely wrong. It was certainly on the money with This Side of Paradise.
Normally I would split the critique of plot and character, but since there is no plot beyond “How is Amory developing as a character?” it feels redundant splitting the two elements, as I would ultimately be parroting back the same issues with both. My issues with Amory then. Despite reading about almost nothing but him and his personality for over 200 pages, I don’t think that there is much to actually pin down about him besides the impressively hard-wired traits intellectual arrogance and fay selfishness. The narrative desperately wants you to think that he is brilliant but flawed, but quite honestly there is so little human warmth in him that all of his poetic ambitions seem hilariously out-of-touch considering that you need to be able to feel things in order to express them. Honestly, it feels kind of embarrassing having Amory as a lead character, as he doesn’t seem to have either the drive to do the great things that he sort of assumes that he will inevitably achieve or the emotional range to be quite the ladykiller that he proves to be. The nagging feeling that Amory was based on Fitzgerald himself somehow just makes this worse. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that I’ve found an author stand-in character that actually works.
So, despite the emotional lack of depth and the plot that gets less and less defined the more Amory puts off making actual adult decisions, I would say that there is something that prevents This Side of Paradise from being a complete waste. The actual writing itself. While there are long stretches where it does little more than adequately depict the events of the book, you do get flashes of really interesting writing that makes you realise why people really loved this book when it was first published. It’s things like changing the format from prose to script for certain romantic sections, or a particularly striking line of prose, and you get that whoever wrote This Side of Paradise is going places, even if he isn’t there yet.
This Side of Paradise is quite obvious as a first novel as you read it. The act of following Amory Blaine is an effort that doesn’t really pay off, as the plot can only be interesting when he actually has some kind of direction in life, which is seldom. There are moments of brilliance in the writing though, so some definite promise to save it from being a totally wasted effort. 3/5
Next review: The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald