Tuesday, June 21, 2011
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
The Paris Wife recounts, in a fictional way, the meeting, courtship and marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The novel spans the years 1920-1927, with an epilogue set in 1961. Because of its memoir style, the reader may expect a memoir-type plot, one with a small and perhaps unimpressive climax. Our memoirs might read that way, but this is not our story; it is the story of one of our most colorful American writers and the end of his first marriage. We live in quiet towns; they live in Paris and vacation in the Alps for months at a time. We have friends who lead lives much like our own; so do they, only they are friends with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, authors who began a new movement in American literature. We live middle class lives; they lived the life of a poor struggling artist, often subsisting on $2,000 a year. They were spectacular and, yet, they were like us in many ways. This is their story.
“I’ll write to you, he mouthed. Or maybe it was I’ll write you.” – Hadley, recalling Hemingway, 22
“What had Earnest said way back when in Chicago? Love is a beautiful liar? Beauty was a liar, too.” – Hadley, 78
“’Men are stoics when it comes to matters of the heart.’ ‘You seem very stoic to me, too.’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But I work impossibly hard at it, darling.’” – conversation between Shakespear and Hadley, 144
“’Families can be vicous, but ours won’t be.’ ‘Our baby will know everything we know. We’ll be very hnest and not hold anything back.’ ‘And we won’t underestimate him.’ ‘Or make him feel terrified of life.’” – conversation between Hemingway and Hadley, 159
“’I can take the bulls and the blood,’ Don said to me quietly. ‘It’s this human business that turns my stomach.’” – conversation between Don and Hadley, 219
How can you not be drawn to a book that was based on a line from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – a line of deep sentiment. Mourning the disintegration of his marriage to Hadley Richardson, he laments, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”
It is a story of Hemingway and Hadley; it is the story their years in Paris with Pound and Stein and Fitzgerald; it is the story of The Sun Also Rises. But it is mostly – Hadley’s story.
Hadley’s voice is exquisite. It is raw and true, clear and beautiful. In these ways, it is reminiscent of Hemingway’s. Although, I didn’t always agree with Hadley and was sometimes frustrated by her actions, she is consistent and didn’t waver. She was in the end as she was in the beginning and this made her a convincing character. Throughout the novel, many of the characters refer to her as “good” and her lack of bitterness about Hemingway’s betrayal is evidence; at the end, she still refers to herself as “that impossibly luck girl.” She fervently declares her love for Hemingway throughout, and in the end – even after everything – you know it is true.
The events are entirely heartbreaking and a product of 1920’s Paris, of the Jazz Age, and of something more than simply that. It is a very private tragedy, one that Hadley shares to help the reader understand what happened, not why it happened. Because Hadley herself doesn’t judge Hemingway, and she never gives the reader a license to judge.
It is fiction, and though written after extensive research, including numerous letters between Hadley and Hemingway, some of it is the author’s conjecture. Therefore, reading it and expecting a nonfiction account is reading with unrealistic expectations. McLain does a wonderful job of bringing the reader into the period – using common slang, such as “tight” and pet names, such as “Tatie” and “Pfife” – but the book is still fiction. The Paris Wife humanizes Hadley, Hemingway and the literary greats they interacted with in Paris; it tells a story, and hopefully it interests people in reading Hemingway’s account in A Moveable Feast.
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