Were it not for the publication in 1920 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel The Side of Paradise, we might never have had The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night or any of those fine short stories (“Winter Dreams”) for which Fitzgerald is remembered. In these later works Fitzgerald was a beautiful writer. In his first novel, self-absorbed, forced, disorganized, pedantic, sophomoric—he was still learning to write. He was very early in that process.
Fitzgerald must have written his first novel under the influence of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Surely he had this book in mind as he wrote his story about the privileged yet burdened Amory Blaine and his struggles to discover his vocation, his struggles to become a writer. In the final paragraph we are told that Blaine has discovered his calling, that he knows who he is, but the novel—both in the story it tells and the way it is written--gives no assurances he will make good on this knowledge.
Fitzgerald devotes nearly half of the book to Amory Blaine’s experiences at Princeton University, where he makes friends, joins a social club, becomes a campus luminary, has numerous intellectual conversations, drinks often and long, and experiences various romantic intrigues. It’s difficult to conceive of anything less interesting than detailed accounts of one’s college days, and one suspects that Amory’s self-absorption is a reflection of the same property in young author who imagined him.
After he graduates from Princeton, Blaine goes to war, the first world war, and returns (we are to believe) a changed and chastened man. Yet Fitzgerald gives us two or three fairly broad pages about the war (which he had no role in) and then moves on. At the age of 24 or so he returns to the Princeton campus and feels nostalgic and so grown beyond those collegiate days gone by. This is self-indulgent nostalgia. Fitzgerald is a much better nostalgia artist in his later work.
Several romances mark the dramatic centers of this books—two with socialites, one with a strange girl in the rural areas of New York who seems to be an early version of Nicole Diver and is perhaps Fitzgerald’s version of la belle dame sans merci. Blaine’s most traumatic romantic experience is his rejection by a beautiful upper-class girl who leaves him because he hasn’t the financial means to support her well. (Shades of Zelda?)
I’d put this novel in the same category as Faulkner’s much superior Soldiers’ Pay—it’s a beginner’s novel. But not all first books are necessarily so flawed—consider Hemingway’s In Our Time.