Monday, December 19, 2011

The Paris Wife

By Paula McLain
New York, Ballantine Books, 2011
336 pages     Fiction
Read on my Kindle

Like many of the literati of their generation, Ernest Hemingway and his new bride, Hadley, took off for Paris in 1921 to begin their lives together. They lived on a small inheritance from her family until Hemingway got on his feet as a writer; they traveled to Spain and Austria, had a baby son, met up with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Archibald McLeish, Gertrude Stein and all the famous authors and poets of the day. But the marriage was not to last, and they were divorced within five years. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is the novelized version of their marriage.

The story is told by Hadley, who was a virtual “spinster” of 28 when she married the younger Hemingway. He brought her to life, transporting her to a much more exciting and rewarding life than she would have had if she had remained in St. Louis. She was his sounding board and his stability, and according to his memoir, A Movable Feast, the love of his life, although he was married three more times. Of her he says, “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.”

It is difficult to know where the facts end and the fiction begins. Because The Paris Wife reads like a memoir, the reader has to keep reminding herself that this is fiction. I found Hadley, at least according to McLain, to be a very interesting character primarily because Ernest takes a back seat in this novel. This is the opposite of everything we know about Hemingway, who was a “larger than life” character in his own life story. The Hadley of The Paris Wife is complex and a keen observer of the lives of the expatriates the Hemingway’s encounter during those Paris years. She was much more down-to-earth and practical than most of the other wives and lovers. Although she seems able to party with the best of them, she remains true and supportive of Hemingway until the bitter end of their marriage. 

Hadley seems to understand that the life she experienced as the wife of Ernest Hemingway was a far more stimulating life than any other life she could have had, and that living among the rich and famous in the Paris of the 1920s was at once magical and destructive. She says, “We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was. We invented it after all. We made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn’t ours. Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again.”

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, Hadley’s biographer Gioia Diliberto discusses how she found source material for her biography in some audio tapes supplied her by Hadley’s long-time friend. She says, “I expected Hadley, who died in 1979, to be bitter toward Hemingway; instead, on the tapes she is full of gratitude to him for giving her "the key to the world." She suggests that Ernest “was the first person to see deeply into her true nature, and in a rueful irony, he helped her find the strong sense of self that sustained her through their break-up.” 

I think I can understand that. My first husband, who died at a young age, was an exciting and colorful person, full of humor and love for people. I, on the other hand, took myself far too seriously and was a bit self-righteous and straight-laced. Lee gave me “the key to the world” and opened me up to experience life in ways I never would have if I hadn’t met him and learned from him.

One of the New York Times reviewers pretty much skewered the book, from the cover which looked way more 1950s than 1920s to the slow first third of the novel, to what the reviewer calls “clumsy foreshadowing,” to the blaze of righteous indignation the reader feels when Hadley gets dumped for the stylish Pauline. While I understood what the reviewer was saying, I felt differently about Hadley and The Paris Wife. I thought that McLain created Hadley to be a person who evolved into a strong and interesting person, one who could withstand the dangers of the Paris scene of the 1920s even as she was the backbone for the great writer Ernest Hemingway was to become.

The nasty review in the New York Times:
The biography by Gioia Diliberto: Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife, Harper Perennial, 2011. Her article in the Chicago Tribune:
An interview with Paula McLain at the Hemingway

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