Most people skim through the prologue of a book and head right for the meat. If it's a good book, it's devoured front to back. But rarely do readers pay attention to a book's dedication. Even if they do, they may ponder it for a moment but never actually dig into the who and why behind the often mysterious and intriguing inscriptions.
Marlene Wagman-Geller started digging after reading Grace Metalious' Peyton Place. The inscription, “To George—for all the reasons he knows so well” caught her eye and got her going: Who's George? she wondered. And what the heck are all the reasons he knows so well? Next thing Wagman-Geller knew, she was Googling, reading everything she could find and immersing herself in a story about a gutsy, free-spirited woman who never really fit into the role of mother and wife in a small, prim and proper New England town. Wagman-Geller found that George, Grace's husband, was a principal at a school in that town, and he put up with more than his fair share of unfavorable commentary about his wife, who rejected the typical style and dress of a 1950s woman and instead opted for flannel shirts and blue jeans and preferred spending time behind a typewriter instead of a kitchen stove. The reasons George knew so well, according to Wagman-Geller's summation, were all the cooking, cleaning, childrearing and societal rejection he had to engage in because of his rebellious wife.
For Wagman-Geller, researching the dedication was a blast. She quickly put together five stories about authors' dedications and sent it off in a mass e-mail as a book pitch to literary agents. Three responded, and the eventual result was Once Again to Zelda, a collection of 50 tales, mostly involving tragedy, wayward love affairs and oddities, about the personal lives of some of America's favorite writers, both dead and alive.
The incredible intimacy of one- or two-sentence inscriptions is revealed in Wagman-Geller's work, and some of the stories, like that of the title piece, a dedication by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his wife Zelda in The Great Gatsby, will leave readers in disbelief at the intensity and tumultuousness of the couple's love. Others, like the story behind the dedication by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls, will introduce fans to a less-romanticized version of the great author and explain why, in certain circles, he's remembered as kind of an asshole.
“Here's a Jewish word for you,” said Wagman-Geller, seated in the living room of her suburban La Mesa home, her Persian cat rubbing against her ankles: “What a schmuck.”
“And Ayn Rand—now that's chutzpah,” Wagman-Geller continued. “Dedicating your book to your husband and your lover? I guess if you're a Russian genius, you can dedicate it to whoever you want.”
And when Wagman-Geller is asked to tell her own tale behind the dedication—“To my Js”—in Once Again to Zelda, her first book ever published, she'll bring up the typical suburban ennui that comes from getting up every day and going to work as an English teacher in National City, then coming home to her husband and daughter (her two Js) every night and getting up and doing the same thing over again. But there's nothing quite as juicy in her tale as is found in the lives of the authors she chose to investigate.
“My life was not as tragic,” Wagman-Geller said. “But, you know, here's another Jewish word: Everybody's life has some tsores. Trouble. Problems—you know, it's good and bad.”
Wagman-Geller capitalizes on mostly the bad in Once Again to Zelda.
Wagman-Geller's writing can feel a little rushed at times, and she tends to try to wrap up each story with a nice little bow, sort of implying that the authors must have learned something from their real-life tragedies. It's a good read, but it would've been even better if she had left things festering—just like the real lives of these authors, who probably wouldn't have written their great works had they not suffered so.
Wagman-Geller will be reading from her book at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Barnes & Noble in Grossmont Center, 5500 Grossmont Ctr. Dr. in La Mesa.