I loved This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald as much as I hated The Beautiful and Damned (also by Fitzgerald).
Fitzgerald’s first novel…uses numerous formal experiments to tell the story of Amory Blaine, as he grows up during the crazy years following the First World War.
…beware, spoilers ahead!
We follow the life of Amory Blaine from childhood until just after college. He spends a lot of time trying to discover himself and we spend a lot of time examining this kid’s ego. Amory’s ego is a running theme throughout the story. He is convinced he has exceptional promise and is an exceptional person. He’s entitled, boastful, and quite conceited throughout the story.
Amory has a strange relationship with his mother – he calls her Beatrice – but she sends him to expensive schools and he befriends a former lover of hers, Darcy, who is now a monsignor in the church. Amory has long conversations with him, mostly about how alike and special they each are. It’s almost as if he’s actually Beatrice’s baby-daddy, rather than Amory’s father.
Mostly, we follow Amory’s romantic and intellectual pursuits as he discovers and makes peace with his place in the world. From his manipulating his way into a first kiss as a thirteen-ish year old at a birthday party through to his failed college relationships, Amory’s focus is always on Amory unless it’s on his latest beloved. He attends Princeton University, and on vacation kindles a romance with the beautiful Isabelle (who reminded me of The Beautiful and Damned’s Gloria). He quickly becomes disillusioned with her, and he goes back to Princeton. From early on in the novel, it’s clear that Amory is both attracted and repulsed by romance with women.
Amory is then shipped out to serve during World War I. One of his friends dies in combat or something, but Amory doesn’t seem particularly bothered by this. In fact, throughout the entire book, Amory doesn’t seem to care when people die much at all. This includes his father, as he’s completely unemotional when his father passes away, and is more interested in the state of his family’s finances and how they will affect him. He’s completely self-involved to the point where it’s actually kind of disgusting, and he only seems affected by having to look at dead bodies, but he never really seems bothered by death. He watches one of his friends die in a car accident, and only really seems bothered that he had to look at the body.
The only time he seems affected by the death of a person is when Monsignor Darcy dies, and that mostly seems like it’s because he and Darcy would sit together and talk about how exceptional they were, and now he can’t do that anymore.
Anyway, the real turning point in his life is meeting Rosalind Connage, a New York debutant. The pair of them are madly in love, but because he is now poor (his parents, mostly his father, irresponsibly lost their fortune), Rosalind chooses to marry a rich man, which devastates Amory.
There’s also a scene where Amory and a different girlfriend play a game of chicken on horses towards a cliff – she leaps off her horse and the horse goes over. Actually, I’m not sure it’s a game of chicken as much as she’s crazy and Amory dumps her soon afterwards. But yeah, that kind of upset me a lot. Poor horse, stupid bitch.
Anyway, at the end of all this, when Monsignor Darcy dies, Amory makes his most iconic statement, after forming an opinion on everything and then un-forming his opinions on everything, he says, “I know myself, but that is all.”
In spite of the fact that Amory is arrogant, self-centered, and kind of smug most of the novel, I do really like him. As he grows up, he realizes more and more that he doesn’t really know anything very well at all. He does fall in love, even if it is a superficial, shallow kind of love a lot of the time (like with Gloria and Anthony in The Beautiful and Damned), and he does think a lot. A lot of the book is his conversations with his good friends about philosophy, art, life, etc…
This novel was particularly interesting because it blends a bunch of different types of writing. Sometimes it’s a fictional narrative, there are poems and things that Amory writes, sometimes written as a play, sometimes free verse, etc… Actually, it was interesting but I did find it a bit irritating. Pick what you want to write and stick with it; none of this switching over from one thing to another.
The whole story is semi-autobiographical – Fitzgerald needed to publish a novel in order to win over his socialite love who wouldn’t marry him unless he made some money (like Rosalind and Amory). A bunch of the characters, including Amory’s best friend, Thomas Parke D’Invilliers, who is the fictional writer of the poem at the start of The Great Gatsby (I looked it up because I remembered the name), are based on actual people that Fitzgerald knew. Beatrice was based on a friend’s mother, and Rosalind was based on Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda.
Amory’s final lament, “I know myself, but that is all,” is the culmination of what has gone on throughout the book. After trying to figure out what has interested him, and formed him, from his mother to losing or discarding love (and abandoning the idea of finding inspiration or love in women after Rosalind), after shunning convention (which he finds he despises), and losing all his money, Amory has finally solved the quest of the book, which is to discover himself.
This book is a bit disjointed. It makes odd jumps in both time and style, and can be a bit unclear. There is an episode where Amory is in New York City with friends and believes he is being chased by some sort of supernatural specter (the devil maybe)? All this happens after an evening of heavy drinking. Amory drinks frequently throughout the novel to cope with physical and emotional pain and it can get quite tedious both listening to his self-indulgent whining and his arrogant conversations with friends. His belief in his own exceptionalism is irritating, and watching someone go back and forth from engaged to apathetic with his own life is downright infuriating.
His love affairs are melodramatic and for someone like me, who doesn’t fall in love easily, unbelievable in a lot of ways. Love at first sight? No. Never love again because you got dumped once as a twenty-ish year old? No. More infatuation than actual love? Definitely.
But Amory is a lot like me, a lot like many people I know, a lot like many people who have been forced to grow up, whether early by circumstance or just the passage of time. He’s got more of an ego than a lot of people, but for the most part, he is a kid who experiences the ups and downs of love, both the desire to be normal and the desire to be different, the pressures of school and a social life, and is just trying to figure out who he is and where he fits in the world.
…And then he grows up.
This culminates at the end of the story, with the payoff being that Amory comes to realize his own selfishness, something a lot of Fitzgerald characters never do. And I loved him, and this book, for it.