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December 27, 2011

Rohit Reviews: This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise

Only a few days ago, I lamented the slowing of my reading pace caused by what I deemed the twin malignancies of overwork and ill-conceived travel. The holidays, however, have brought some spare time and today I wrapped up the first of four new books purchased in yet another ill-advised book-buying binge last week in Brooklyn. Compared to Midnight's Children, F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise was a breeze of a read that I could most likely have finished in a day had it not been for other commitments. Having read and enjoyed The Great Gatsby a couple times (once in high school and again in college), I had rather high expectations for Fitzgerald's 1920 foray into the literary world at the tender age of twenty-three. Unfortunately, the novel ended up being somewhat of a disappointment.

This Side of Paradise is the story of Amory Blaine, a young man from a well-to-do Midwestern family, from the time he is a child to sometime after he has graduated from college. Presented in three parts, the novel interweaves narrative text with poetry, songs, stage directions, and excerpts of letters to document Amory's coming of age, his search for identity, and his various romantic dalliances. Through the various episodes, we see Amory find and lose love, confront the social strictures of boarding school and college, and combat the restlessness that accompanied his generation.

Before dealing with the subject of my disappointment, I suppose it behooves me to mention the positives of this novel. For one, the hints of what made Gatsby such an impressive feat are already present in Fitzgerald's debut. His prose is descriptive, evocative, and breezy—at times, it even sparkles. For another, This Side of Paradise captures the ennui of youth rather well, whether in the search for meaning or the intensity of first love.

That last point, however, is also probably why I had a tough time relating to this novel. For whatever reason, I missed it when I was in my own adolescence, and reading it now at age 28, it was hard not to see it as a rather shallow and inexperienced effort. To begin with, Amory wasn't the most sympathetic protagonist, and considering the autobiographical nature of the novel, neither was Fitzgerald. Superficial, arrogant, narcissistic, and lazy, Amory embodied a rather loathsome character type also on display in Gatsby, with the difference being that in This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald failed to evoke our sympathies. Nor do any of Amory's love interests fare much better. Seductive, but fickle and flighty, the women of this novel come out even worse than Amory, if that's possible.

More generally, I found the characters were rather undeveloped and their relationships insubstantial. The episodic and meandering nature of the novel did not help in this regard. The book also lags toward the end after Amory's final romantic encounter (with Eleanor). Fitzgerald clearly struggled to close the novel, and the second to last scene with the formerly rich Amory spewing socialist drivel to his college friend's father was both unbelievable and rather misplaced.

Ultimately, its sophomoric nature notwithstanding, I would still recommend this book—but just barely. If you are a fan of Fitzgerald, this will be an interesting read to see the prototypes of his latter, memorable characters. And as a study in the listlessness of the Lost Generation, this book might be deemed a great success. But don't kid yourself: this is no Gatsby and recognizing that before you start will probably allow you to avoid the disappointment I experienced. Three stars of five.


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