Best Summer Reads | Novels of the 1920s

Transport Yourself to 1920s France with the Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways, and the Murphys

The Lost Generation artists and their eccentric lives have always fascinated me. There is something about Ernest Hemingway’s blunt manliness, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s flair for drama, or their friends Sara and Gerald Murphy’s flawless hosting skills that draws me back to their histories again and again. Their lives certainly provided excellent fodder for novels of the time like The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises, but they recently have also become the subjects of contemporary novels that masterfully fictionalize their stories. 

In the decade following World War I, a coterie of American writers and socialites fled (or confronted) their disillusionment with post-war society by relocating to Paris to pursue their art and a different way of life. They were dubbed the “Lost Generation” by poet Gertrude Stein, in large part because they had come of age during a period of total war that the world had not yet seen and had yet to make sense of; however, the title is also fitting because, in coping with their perceived loss of meaning, they meandered through relationships and alcohol and opulence without knowing or caring about what was to come. I’ve rounded up three novels about real-life Lost Generationers that I know will make excellent summer reads. Check out my mini-reviews below, as well as a downloadable reading guide that pairs nicely with all three books and is perfect for keeping a reading journal or starting a summer book club!

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Ballantine Books (2011)

The Paris Wife recounts the early lives of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley Richardson. Caught between her staid Victorian upbringing and Hemingway’s adventurous, unconventional personality, Hadley narrates this novel with a lovely but melancholic air. The blurb on the back of the book points out that the story is poignant because we know the ending: their marriage does not last. Nonetheless, McLain captures the vulnerable essence of their relationship that Hemingway himself described in his memoir, A Moveable Feast: “But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

(Paula McLain’s recent novel about Hemingway’s third marriage to Martha Gellhorn, Love and Ruin, is on my list to read this summer, too!)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

St. Martin’s Press (2013)

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald came out amidst the revival of all things Fitzgerald when Baz Luhrmann released his adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 2013. The novel received even more attention when Amazon turned it into a series starring Christina Ricci in 2015. Though fictionalized, the novel stays quite true to the Fitzgerald’s reality. They were celebrities of the Jazz Age (a term coined by Fitzgerald himself) and many have described their wild lives as something of a fiction. Like The Paris Wife, Z is also narrated from the female perspective, which gives the book an untold-history vibe; we’ve read Scott’s words (many of which were actually written by Zelda), but in this novel we get to hear Zelda in her own voice.

Villa America by Liza Klaussmann

Little, Brown and Company (2015)

Unlike the other two novels, Villa America boasts a third-person narrator and does not feature writers and their wives as protagonists. Rather, the novel is about Gerald and Sara Murphy, two American expatriates who rebelled against their families’ Victorianism by reinventing their lives in the south of France. The Murphys were a stylish couple who were devoted to their three children and were extravagant hosts to all of the great Lost Generation artists of the time, Hemingway and Fitzgerald included. (In fact, the Hemingways, the Fitzgeralds, and the Murphys are characters in all three books I’ve recommended.) The couple created another world for themselves in Cap d’Antibes by building Villa America, their fantastically stylish home. Though this novel takes more fictional liberties than The Paris Wife and Z, the story’s twists and the way it  jumps around in time and keep readers intrigued.

A recurring theme in works from the literary Modernist period is the idea that language can reshape reality. These three real-life couples attempt to do just that with their writing, their parties, and their way of life—three characteristics that make these novels excellent summer reads!

Happy reading,

Jordan

Download the reading guide below!

 

Jordan is a writer, educator, artist, and all-around lover of words. An English teacher by day, she is also a classically trained singer and pursues creativity in many forms—from singing and writing, to creating artwork and designing spaces to host family and friends.

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