Tender is the Night is the dramatic story of a couple, Dick Diver and Nicole Warren. Dick, the son of a clergyman and a promising psychiatrist, meets Nicole in a sanatorium in Switzerland. She has been admitted because she became schizophrenic after being raped by her father. After a while, Dick and Nicole start corresponding and progressively, he witnesses Nicole getting better. Dick falls in love with her and eventually marries her, despite the disapproval of Nicole’s sister Baby, and the warnings of Doctor Dohmler, who works at the sanatorium.

The story is narrated in five parts, corresponding to phases in the couple’s life. Apparently, most versions start with Dick and Nicole on the Riviera, some years into their marriage, already with two kids, and viewed through the admiring eyes of young actress Rosemary Hoyt. However, my edition (Penguin Popular Classics) is chronological and starts with Dick and Nicole’s encounter in the sanatorium.

Nicole and Dick make a remarkably superficial couple, giving impressive parties for sophisticated guests. They live a life of leisure, thanks to Nicole’s money, and Dick’s promising career goes down the drain, as his planned book on psychiatry is never completed. One day Nicole breaks down after an alcoholic friend of the Divers accidentally kills a man. Rosemary witnesses her episode.

After her wife’s relapse, Dick invests in a friend’s clinic in Switzerland where Nicole is looked after, but progressively, his behavior changes, he becomes an alcoholic and gets involved in brawls. As Dick deteriorates, Nicole, who started her marriage in a co-dependant relationship, gets better and eventually breaks up with Dick, realizing she has spent 10 years of her life playing "planet to Dick’s sun". Initially a charming man, who had "the power of arousing a fascinating and uncritical love […], to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies", Dick ends up a bitter man, whose career, social life and marriage all collapsed, and he eventually disappears from view, taking his failed career elsewhere, all presumably because of his wife’s mental disease and also her spoiling money. I write presumably, because it is never clear, whom Dick’s demise is to be blamed on. He certainly thinks it is his wife’s fault and the fault of her wealth, but his life of excessive partying and superficiality remains his own choice after all…

I remember liking The Great Gatsby, which I read about 15 years ago, quite a lot, but I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for Tender is the Night. My main complaint is that I found the novel almost as superficial as the characters themselves (and I was not surprised to read that the novel was judged frivolous, back when it was published, in 1933). First of all, I have been unable to gather from it how Nicole’s illness exactly affected their relationship, since so few is said about her episodes and their influence on Dick’s faith that he can help her. I missed the psychological depth that only sometimes manages to surface, between all the superficiality and the showing-of of a perfect couple of hosts. But of course this is what makes the particularity of this novel, that we are only meant to guess at what happens behind closed doors of a couple who lives always in representation, under the scrutiny of others, and for whom seeming is more important than being…

Apparently Tender is the Night is largely based on Fitzgerald’s lifestyle and his relationship with his wife Zelda. A man who can have such an insight about his own life could not be so superficial after all…

Rating: 3,5/5