Despite the title, F. Scott Fitzgerald is not a character in this new novel by Natasha Lester, as he was in the comparison novels of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and The Paris Wife. But he is alluded to as the voice of youth in 1920s’ New York. The main character, Evie Lockhart, is both beautiful and damned. Damned because she’s a woman who wants to be a doctor, which makes her just as much a social pariah as dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies. Unlike the two novels mentioned, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is fictional. In a meta-fictional moment, Evie bemoans “if only she lived in a Fitzgerald novel” where girls could do what they wanted.
There was no Evie Lockhart, but there was a first woman to graduate from medical school in New York, who would have had to battle against the same bias, harassment, obstacles and threats as Evie must contend with in order to meet her goal. “[D]id she have the strength to go against everyone’s wishes, to create a life for herself that was so different to what everybody expected of her?”
This is a page-turner right to the very end, which had me in tears. There is great narrative drive throughout the novel, from when Evie first discovers her reason for wanting to be a doctor, through to her heart-breaking decision to do what was best for others at great cost to herself.
“It wasn’t just a question of her breaking into an occupation that few other women had dared to enter, it was a matter of changing the way everyone working in that occupation thought: that a birthing woman was like a salmon who should go ahead and die once the business was over.”
I thought this novel was an exceptional piece of historical fiction in that it didn’t lecture on the rights and wrongs of the attitudes of the time. Evie’s decisions are situated within the social mores of the upper class of New York, and as much as the reader might rail against why Evie chooses to behave in certain ways, her decisions are made with conviction. There is not an anachronistic note in the novel, unlike some other historical fiction novels I’ve read with ‘feisty’ heroines.
What stands out in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald is the ‘feeling’ of the time. Here, Lester indulges in fashions and slang, which can only situate the story in 1920s’ New York and nowhere else. Everything is the “snake’s hips” or a “real clip joint”. She seems to have had a lot of fun sprinkling the dialogue with these codes. The novel is fun. It is also tragic, uplifting, and frustrating. What it is not, is a history lesson. Description is light, and never intrusive.
A good historical fiction is entertainment grounded in historical truth. A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald tells a story of the 1920s as being something more than just a time of parties and frivolity, but as a time of great change, where women pioneered positions in occupations such as obstetrics. Like Evie, the reader finds within this novel something far more substantial and meaningful than Mr Fitzgerald’s casual kisses.