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January 14, 2015

Book Notes - Stewart O'Nan "West of Sunset"

West of Sunset

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Stewart O'Nan's novel West of Sunset is an insightful and pitch perfect accounting of the last days of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A sympathetic portrayal of a troubled genius. . .O'Nan has masterfully re-created the feel and ambience of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1930s. . .he has crafted an insightful glimpse into a sad period in Fitzgerald's life."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Stewart O'Nan's Book Notes music playlist for his novel West of Sunset:

Scott Fitzgerald loved to dance. As a boy in Buffalo, he attended classes at a charm-school-like studio where he learned warhorses like the two-step and the waltz, which in his teen years he had opportunity to use at cotillions and proms along with his prep school pals. His first romances--really, all his romances--started on the dance floor. He memorialized these unforgettable nights by saving his dance cards so that even now we can see who his favorite partners were. When the racy foxtrot and the Continental came along, he and Zelda were courting under the disapproving eyes of Montgomery's country club set. When they finally married and moved to New York, they danced the nights away at the Jungle Club and the Morocco, in friends' kitchens and on starry rooftops.

There's dance music throughout Fitzgerald's writing. The twenties represents the first flowering of the American songbook, as popular music broke through not only on the Broadway stage but nationwide on the radio. No matter when or where his work was set, Fitzgerald was careful to get the soundtrack right. In his notebooks he kept lists of the songs that were everywhere that season. In his books, nothing signals loss and the passage of time more than some band in a mediocre summer hotel playing last year's tunes.

Going into West of Sunset, I knew Scott had first danced with his new love Sheilah Graham at the Cocoanut Grove, where a decade before he and Zelda had shared happier times, swaying beneath Valentino's fake palm trees from The Sheik. To get in the mood, I planned on listening to dance bands from the era, and by chance, while I was researching the Cocoanut Grove on-line, I stumbled across two ten-CD collections of '30s radio broadcasts from the club itself (available at The songs are sentimental and clever, and while most are lighthearted, among the celebrations of love are pleas and confessions. There's an innocence and vulnerability to them that fits Fitzgerald's characters in a way that doesn't fit, say, Hemingway's.

Springsteen has a famous line about listening to side one of Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits, which opens with "Pretty Woman" and closes with "Cryin'," encapsulating a whole romance--only to have the needle return to "Pretty Woman" so that Roy falls hard again. In the same spirit, here's a playlist of just some of the songs from the Cocoanut Grove I listened to while writing West of Sunset:

“Love's Just Around the Corner”
“Someday I'll Find You”
“The Day You Came Along”
“There Goes My Heart”
“I’m Just a Fool in Love With You”
“When the Night is Young”
“Music in the Moonlight”
“Your Head on My Shoulder”
“Say It”
“Penthouse Serenade (When We're Alone)”
“Wait Til I Get You in My Dreams"
“Love is a Dream” (yes, the one Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks dance to on SNL)
“Til Tomorrow”
“When the Morning Rolls Around”
“Was It a Dream?”
“Were You Foolin'?”
“I'm Sorry, Dear”
“You Knew You'd Hurt Somebody, Why Did It Have to Be Me?”
“Too Many Tears”
“I Still Bring Roses to You”
“Baby, Won't You Please Come Home?”
“You're Nobody's Sweetheart Now”
"I'm All Dressed Up With a Broken Heart"
"Love Goes On Just the Same"

which brings us back to "Love's Just Around the Corner."

Stewart O'Nan and West of Sunset links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

BookPage review
Buffalo News review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus review
LA Daily News review
Newsday review
Paste review
Philadelphia Inquirer review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review

Independent Weekly interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Odds
Publishers Weekly profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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