Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tender is the Night - Like many people, my first encounter with Fitzgerald was The Great Gatsby, but while I remember being impressed with his writing, I didn’t love the book the way I know so many other readers do. That must have been seven or eight years ago and I haven’t read any of his other books since then (apart from his short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I enjoyed) so I decided it was time to try another one to see whether The Great Gatsby, despite being his most popular book, might not have been the best place for me to start.

Tender is the Night, published in 1934, is the story of the disintegration of the marriage of psychiatrist Dick Diver and one of his former patients, Nicole Warren. The novel is divided into three sections and the first is told from the perspective of Rosemary Hoyt, a young American actress spending some time in the south of France with her mother while she recuperates from an illness. One morning she goes down to the beach where she meets Dick and Nicole for the first time. Immediately attracted by their glamorous lifestyle and personal charm, Rosemary becomes captivated by both Divers.

In the second section of the book we move back in time to the beginning of Dick’s relationship with Nicole at a psychiatric clinic in Switzerland. By the time the story returns to the present again, both the reader and Rosemary can see that the Divers’ marriage is not as perfect as it first appeared. The rest of the novel follows the breakdown of their marriage as Nicole grows stronger and Dick’s life goes into a decline.

After I got past the wonderful opening scenes set on the beach, I quickly became bored. I finished the first section with a growing sense of dread at the thought of having to write a negative review of a book that I was sure must be a beloved favourite of so many other people – or worse still, having to abandon it. I’m glad I persevered because it turned out to be only the first section of the book that was a problem and after the focus switched to Dick and Nicole in the second and third parts, I found the story much more engaging.

I know there is another revised version of this book that rearranges the story chronologically and I can understand the reasoning behind that. I’m sure I would have found it much easier to get into the book if it had started with Dick and Nicole instead of Rosemary. However, I think taking Rosemary’s section away from the beginning would remove the sense of mystery – the fact that we first see the Divers through Rosemary’s youthful and naïve eyes means there is more impact when we discover that there’s actually much more to their marriage than meets the eye.

I’m aware that Tender is the Night is partly autobiographical and inspired by Fitzgerald’s own life with his wife, Zelda, who also suffered from mental illness. As I’ve never had enough interest in the Fitzgeralds to have read about their lives in any depth, the autobiographical aspect of the story didn’t have a lot of meaning for me, but I could appreciate that he was drawing on his own experiences with Zelda to give his portrayal of Dick and Nicole’s relationship a feeling of authenticity.

However, I’m not sure if I really liked this book any more than I liked The Great Gatsby. It’s a more complex, mature and emotionally moving story, but with both novels I have struggled to fully connect with any of the characters, something that is more important to me than the elegant writing and complex themes. It’s possible that if I was married I might have more understanding of Dick and Nicole – although I couldn’t identify with Rosemary either, so maybe that wasn’t the problem.

I do think Fitzgerald’s prose is beautiful (I loved the descriptions of the French Riviera, Italy and Switzerland) and this is a book that needs to be read slowly so that you can really appreciate the beauty of each sentence. If I’m going to be honest, though, the feeling of boredom I felt near the beginning stayed with me throughout the whole book. I know now that Fitzgerald is never going to be a favourite author of mine, but I’m glad I’ve at least given him a chance by reading two of his novels before coming to that conclusion.

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24 thoughts on “Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  1. Alex says:

    It’s a long time since I read this, but I do remember enjoying it far more than Gatsby, which I reread last summer and still didn’t love in the way so many people do. I think there was a novel about Zelda published recently. I thought I might look out for that if the library has a copy but I wouldn’t be interested enough to go out and buy it.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’ve heard about the Zelda novel (I think the title is “Z”) but had no interest in reading it until now. I’ll be looking out for it at the library now as well.

  2. A Great Book Study says:

    It’s ok if we don’t experience literature the same way someone else does. But I’m with you when it comes to connection with characters. They must have some depth and personality. Some writers are great at developing characters, and some just never resonate with the reader.

    • Helen says:

      In both of the Fitzgerald books I’ve read I felt very distanced from the characters. I can appreciate the quality of his writing, but without that connection I just can’t love his books.

  3. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    The Great Gatsby has never clicked with me, either, and I had to read it about a million times in college. I do have a very nice copy of Tender is the Night that I hope to read this year as, like you, I want to give Fitzgerald another try. His writing really shines, but there is something almost too restrained about it.

    • Helen says:

      I hope Tender is the Night clicks with you more than The Great Gatsby did. I’m glad I gave him a second chance, as at least I know now that his books are not really for me.

  4. Plethora says:

    You are not alone on the lack of love for The Great Gatsby!

    I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters either, I felt like I was meandering around with no purpose.

  5. Nell says:

    It seems a recurrent theme where there is a third character acting as an observer to a central relationship in Fitzgerald’s work (thinking of Great Gatsby here and the characters of Nick and Gatsby/Daisy). I’m always intrigued when he draws upon his own relationship with Zelda – I must read a biography on the couple some day!

    Brilliant review, I’m glad you stuck with it as I’m reading The Beautiful and the Damned at the moment, so will pick this up next!

    Nell at And Nell Writes

    • Helen says:

      I hope you’re enjoying The Beautiful and Damned. I had considered reading that one instead of Tender is the Night and now I’m wondering if I would have enjoyed it more?

  6. Sam (Tiny Library) says:

    I had a similar response to you to The Great Gatsby, and like you I went on to read Tender is the Night, but I liked it much more than you. I loved the emotional complexity and how there were no right or easy answers in the book.

    • Helen says:

      This was a much more emotional book than The Great Gatsby. There were a lot of things I liked about it, but I wish I could have loved it as much as you did.

  7. jessicabookworm says:

    I had a similar problem with The Great Gatsby I thought it was beautifully written but I found it really hard to like or connect with any of the characters. Connecting with characters is important for me. I also have Tender is the Night to read so we will see how it goes!

  8. Lisa says:

    I know I’ve read The Great Gatsby, and it must have been for school – but I can’t even remember that, or much of the story. I’ve never felt even curious about his other books, though.

  9. Charlie says:

    I liked Gatsby but other than the writing it hasn’t really stayed with me (it was last year and I’m already wondering if I should read it again before seeing the film), so I’ve stayed away from his other work so far. I have a feeling I’ll find ‘Night the same as you have, especially as I’d also be hoping to enjoy it more. I do wonder if research beforehand might help, with the few books on Zelda and other references to them maybe that helps appreciate the work if not enjoy it?

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think knowing a little bit about an author’s life and the things that have influenced their writing can sometimes help you to appreciate a book in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise.

  10. Carmen says:

    I read The Beautiful and Damned in late January, and thought that I would follow up with Tender is the Night in February. I made it until 50% the book before giving up. This is not the same Fitzgerald from The Great Gatsby or The Beautiful and Damned. His writing was inspired, the lyricism gone…And yes, I encountered the same problem that you did: I was bored to tears. It is a pity but when I gave up I no longer cared how the story would end. Maybe I’ll pick up the novel some other time and I will appreciate it better.

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