Certain people heighten our senses, changing our perception of the world. Our breakfast tastes better. The air smells sweeter. The sun shines brighter. Like a newfound superpower, we see life pulsing through trees and grass. When with these people, every peach is perfectly ripe and, even if it isn't, it doesn't matter: it's the first peach you remember eating and it tastes indescribable. Time becomes a paradox: slow as a snail's pace, and yet when each moment is over, it somehow slipped by too quickly. Life is immeasurably improved. When lost to us for a day or a lifetime, a dull ache appears, successively enhanced and quelled by a touch of sunlight on our cheek and a bite of peach.
Certain authors create a similar effect. Even at his worst, F. Scott Fitzgerald crafts characters so compelling that when I turn the last page, a piece of my heart breaks off.
Amory Blaine would not be surprised to learn that, upon my first reading of This Side of Paradise, whatever heart of my younger self remained he now has. Based loosely on Fitzgerald's early years courting debutantes and dropping out of Princeton, Amory may as well be every love we experience from ages 16 to roughly 22, or, for the romantic egoists among us, themselves at the same age. Life is never so dramatic as it is during those tumultuous years. But why not fall in love with a poet? Why not skip class to drink wine in the sunlight? These acts build character and I recommend doing both. Eventually, however, we realize we seek something greater than the shallow experiences he offers. Although we will never see Amory again, we send him our best wishes from time to time and hope his drinking problem is under control.
Later we meet Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate, veteran, and narrator of The Great Gatsby fame. Spending time with Nick is an exercise in watching youthful optimism dissipate through the air like a light perfume until only a sweet memory remains. At first he's charming and curious, and days with Nick are filled with new people, parties, and experiences. As time wears on, however, the hangovers last longer. You start to see Nick for what he really is (a bond salesman) and you imagine he sees you for what you really are (a flame too hot for him to hold for long). He's the type of guy your parents love but you do not, and you are ready for the book to end. After experiencing a final tragedy together, you are fine with putting Nick on the shelf. You don't mourn as you did for Amory; your heart must be harder now. Upon a re-read years later, you wonder why you didn't pay closer attention to Jay Gatsby instead, who went to such great lengths to impress you.
Years and many books later, you are older now and have more mature tastes. Lucky for you, an older, more mature character emerges, Monroe Stahr, star of The Love of the Last Tycoon. Monroe is not an artist - Fitzgerald's usual type - but is in the movie business. The timing is fortuitous, as you were just thinking that perhaps it is time for a character removed from non-stop parties, someone who can talk about more than literature or gossip. A man embodying the glitz of Hollywood is a refreshing change of pace and you begin enjoying his business dealings, the fires he fights, and the rivalries he stirs. Just as you warm to him, though, the relationship is tragically cut short by Fitzgerald's own death. We will never know what could have been.
We can't stay wed to one author or genre lest we stagnate, and eventually we eschew Fitzgerald's characters for others. Isaac Asimov has published so many books, you rationalize, that you may not be able to read them all in your lifetime so should really get started. Then there are the modern greats - Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace - who demand your attention. Let's not forget non-fiction and memoir, as well. And would anyone - even Amory Blaine - be who he was without earlier entries in the Western cannon, works you once skimmed for a passing grade but now can't devour completely enough. The seemingly endless stacks await.
However, the memories provided by Fitzgerald will always remain, emerging now and again like a dull ache, successively enhanced and quelled by a touch of sunlight on our cheek and a bite of peach.
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