Just as Jay Gatsby was haunted by Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fizgerald was haunted by his own great first love — a Chicago socialite named Ginevra. Alluring, capricious, and ultimately unavailable, she would become his first muse, the inspiration for such timeless characters as Gatsby's Daisy and Isabelle Borge in This Side of Paradise. Caroline Preston's astute perceptions of her characters and the cultural landscapes they inhabit have earned her work comparisons to to that of Anne Tyler, Alison Lurie, and Diane Johnson. Now, in this richly imagined and ambitious novel, Preston deftly evokes the entire sweep of Ginevra's life — from her first meeting with Scott to the second act of her sometimes charmed, sometimes troubled life. Ginevra was sixteen, a rich man’s daughter who had been told she was pretty far too often for her own good. Scott was nineteen, a poor boy full of ambition. They met at a country club dance in St. Paul, Minnesota, in January 1916. For almost a year they wrote each other letters — so long, breathless, and yearning that they often required more than one envelope. But despite their intense epistolary romance, the relationship wouldn’t last. After throwing him over with what he deemed “supreme boredom and indifference,” she impulsively married a handsome aviator from the right society background. Ruminating over what might have been had she picked the writer instead of the flier, she furtively reads the now famous Fitzgerald’s work. When she sees herself — much to her surprise — in his characters, it’s not just as the spoiled debutante he’d known; he’s also uncannily predicted the woman she’s become, cracks and all. An affecting story of two people, one famous, one known only through her portrayals in enduring works of fiction, Gatsby’s Girl is a tremendously entertaining and moving novel about the powerful forces of first love, memory, and art.
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About the Author
CAROLINE PRESTON is a graduate of Dartmouth College and earned her master’s degree in American civilization at Brown University. She has worked as a manuscript librarian, both at the Houghton Library at Harvard and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. She is the author of two previous novels, Jackie by Josie (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and Lucy Crocker 2.0. She is married to the writer Christopher Tilghman, and they live with their three sons in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
By Caroline Preston
Houghton MifflinCopyright © 2006 Caroline Preston
All right reserved.
Scott Fitzgerald's daughter called long distance, out of the blue. Her voice
sounded apologetic, as if she was afraid I wouldn't remember who he was.
She explained that she had had no idea how to get in touch with me. She
decided to give the number in his old telephone book a try, even though Scott
had been dead for ten years. "I can't believe you're still in the same place,
That made me sit down, hard, on the hall bench. Scott had
bounced around from St. Paul to New York to Paris to Baltimore to
Hollywood, and here I was, still in the same house where he'd come for a
visit, back in 1916. "I'm not Mrs. Granger anymore," I said. "Now I'm Mrs.
John Pullman." At least that part had changed.
She told me her name had changed too, to Scottie Lanahan, and
she lived on a farm in Chevy Chase. Judging from all the racket in the
background, she had a couple of small children and a dog. "My father always
used to talk about you. He said you were the first girl he ever loved."
"I'm afraid I wasn't very nice to him," I said lightly, as if I hadn't
had years of regrets about the way I treated Scott.
"He said you threw him over without a second thought." She let
out a merry little laugh, as if she didn't take any of hfather's heartbreaks
too seriously." Anyway, that's why I'm calling. I'm sorting through Daddy's
papers to give to the library at Princeton, and I found something I know he
would want you to have."
"What?" I asked, thinking maybe it was one of my letters, even
though he was supposed have destroyed them all.
"Let's just say it's something unusual. You'll have to see for
yourself," she said in a teasing way. It reminded me of the game Scott used
on girls at parties. "I'm thinking of two words that describe you," he'd
say, "can you guess?" "I'm going to be in Chicago next week and I was
hoping I could give it to you in person. I've always wanted to meet you."
I tried to think of someplace cheerful and uncomplicated to meet,
in case Scottie was prone to cocktails and mournful moods like her
father. "How about the Walnut Room at Marshall Field's? You'll be my guest,
of course. The Welsh rarebit is famous."
"My favorite." There was a huge clatter in the background, like a
stack of pots and pans falling off a top shelf.
"Uh-oh," said a small voice.
"Better go," Scottie said. "See you next week. At the Walnut
Room. I want to hear all about you and Daddy. Your version."
I hung up the phone and studied the front hallway, trying to
remember what it had looked like that summer Scott visited. The house was
brand new then and still had all the fripperies my father had insisted Mr.
Shaw include. The iron balusters had been gold-leafed, the black-and-white
marble tiles were hard-waxed and buffed once a week by Mrs. Coates, the
privet by the front door was clipped into poodle balls. Daddy h salon portrait at auction to hang in the stairwell—three sons of
some unknown Austrian aristocrat, dressed in ostrich feathers and satin
pantaloons, with oddly enlarged heads.
My image of Scott when he'd stepped through the front door came
in disconnected fragments. His white linen suit was rumpled across the
back, and his collar had a ring of grime from the long train ride. His hair was
bright blond, like a Dutch boy's. The chin and nose were strong, but hadn't
firmed up into the famous profile yet. He dropped his battered suitcase on the
marble floor with a bang and surveyed the hallway as if it were a cathedral—
first staring up at the ceiling and then rotating slowly to take it all in. Then his
girlish mouth pulled back into a tight grin, as if he was trying not to laugh.
Even though Scott's family lived in a rented flat in St. Paul, he could see that
an Italianate villa smack-dab in the middle of the prairie was pretentious.
Later, after he'd had a couple of my father's gin and tonics, he announced
that Lake Forest consisted of nothing more than the palaces of meatpackers.
I could remember Scott's letters more clearly than his face, which
wasn't surprising. I saw Scott only a few times, but there had been dozens
and dozens of letters. Each sheet stamped with the Princeton seal, the
letters so thick that the envelopes bloated like a puffer fish and needed extra
stamps. For a while, I found one every day in my wooden mail cubby at
Westover. The letters seemed clever at first, filled with the flattery and
clippings of his latest in the Tiger Lit.—he was the only boy I'd ever met who
f himself a "writer." But then he came for a visit to Lake Forest, and
under Daddy's judgmental gaze, Scott and his avalanche of love letters
began to seem foolish, tiresome. And I'd met someone more dashing, at
least in my sixteen-year-old opinion—Billy Granger.
The subject of Scott's letters was bound to come up when I had
lunch with Scottie, and I'd have to admit the truth. That a week after Scott's
visit in August 1916, I'd gathered his letters into a heavy, wobbly stack,
carried them down the back stairs, and dumped them in the trash can
outside the kitchen door. I could still see the cream envelopes with the black-
and-orange crest landing on a mound of coffee grounds and eggshells. My
excuses would sound lame. He asked me to destroy his letters, said he was
afraid I'd use them as "incriminating evidence," which was such nonsense.
How could I have ever guessed that the Princeton boy who wrote silly songs
and poems would turn into a famous author?
Scottie had probably read the description of our meeting in This
Side of Paradise: She paused at the top of the staircase, like a diver on a
springboard or a leading lady on opening night—something like that. So
typical of Scott, to take a punch party at a shabby country club and fill it with
flickering lamplight and romantic interludes. To take a stuck-up pre-debutante
and turn her into a noble creature capable of deep feelings.
I wondered what memento of our romance Scottie had found in her
father's papers—a clipping about the party at the Town and Country Club in
the St. Paul paper, a ticket stub for Nobody Home, the sash from the
Hawaiian costume I'd worn the night I broke it off with him? I had my own
secret collection of mementos about Scott, hidden away on the back shelf of
a cedar closet behind a pile of unused evening bags. But I wouldn't share
those with anyone—not his daughter, and certainly not the Princeton library.
I would tell Scottie my version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, without the
The story began in the dormitory of Westover School, second
floor, last door on the left. I could see myself then, a girl strolling jauntily
down a long, dim hallway, her high heels clacking on the bare wood floor, a
pale blue moire jacket slung over one shoulder like a college boy. I was two
months shy of my sixteenth birthday and stood a pinch below five foot four. I
had been told I was pretty far too often for my own good, but my only unusual
features were a thick coil of dark hair and large, doe-brown eyes that could
turn wistful. Dramatic coloring was my claim to fame back in the days when
girls weren't allowed to wear rouge or lipstick.
I was still bristling from the injustice of my father's words as he
put me on the train. He'd said that Westover was my final chance to prove
my character and warned me not to dilly-dally at Grand Central or I'd miss
my connection to Middlebury.
I do have a good character, I fumed. I am good on the inside, and I
never say things I know aren't true. Sometimes I'm too emotional and don't
think things through, but why is that such a character flaw? But I had
dawdled for a few minutes, to have some cinnamon toast in a real English
teashop with organdy curtains and to window shop, and mis my
connection. I caught the next one, but I was three hours late.
Copyright 2006 by Caroline Preston. Reprinted with permission by
Houghton Mifflin Company.
Excerpted from Gatsby's Girl by Caroline Preston Copyright © 2006 by Caroline Preston. Excerpted by permission.
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