Friday, October 7, 2011

What I Read - A Paris Wife

Young love along the Seine in Paris

I’ve finally gotten myself on a defined reading schedule – memoirs, travel tales, essays.  Occasionally I’ll highlight one piece that deserves your time.  The first is Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (2011).

At the end of Ernest Hemingway’s memoir about his early time in Paris with his first wife, A Moveable Feast, he wrote one of the most perfect and perfectly sad lines about love I had ever read.  He pulls into a train station in Austria after spending time in Paris with his lover and sees his wife and young son waiting excitedly for him.  About this moment he writes, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

While the book was a loving tribute to his first wife, Hadley Richardson, it did little to explain how he could leave behind what he had treasured so much.  The novel The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, tries to fill in between all of Hemingway’s lines and tell the story that he, himself, didn’t cover in his memoir.  Her novelized “memoir” tells the story of this Jazz Age couple from the perspective of Hadley Richardson Hemingway, the young wife swept up in the energy and ex-patriot life of her soon-to-be famous husband and the other literary bon vivants of Paris.

I was never much of a fan of Hemingway and his self-centered, insufferable characters or his outsized machismo.  McLain’s book made me no more inclined to return to all the books I swore to never read again after fulfilling my requirements as an English major.  However, she made me infinitely more fascinated with this protected, Midwest young woman who longed to escape the circumscribed confines of her family and her society at home.  Hemingway was a way out.

McLain draws a well-rounded portrait of this young woman thoroughly devoted to her young husband on his way up in the world.  She is not a Jane Austen character to whom everyone else looks to for wisdom and commonsense.  Even in this story about her, she often sits marginalized in the background.  She is the silent one observing Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and other glittering creatures of the Lost Generation gossiping, arguing literature, discussing the finer points of bullfighting.

One of the more telling episodes that makes clear her outsider status occurs on one of the many holidays with their Paris circle.  Hemingway has been traveling across Europe on writing assignments, so Hadley, a young mother with a constantly fussy baby, decides a change of scene might make her loneliness more bearable.  She heads to the south of France for a visit with their Paris friends, but shortly after her arrival, her son is diagnosed with whooping cough and she’s asked to vacate her room at the villa of her hosts.  Everyone is gracious and full of the ultimate politeness, but she and her ill son are deposited in another villa where she spends her days in isolation, tending to his whooping cough, waiting once again for her husband to return from the dramatic world of bullfights or war, or from the arms of his lover.

The Hadley that McLain outlines could easily be dismissed as some weak-willed creature who would do anything to hold on to her husband or who is in way over her head with this celebrity lunch table.  The portrait she paints, however, is not one of a desperate or flighty woman.  Hadley is interesting because she is always thinking.  She’s not impulsive, which makes her a fine balance to the other characters in her story. It gives her a clear eye with which to describe and evaluate the less-than-admirable everyday lives of this people who will be so revered on the world stage.  When she realizes that her husband has started an affair with the one woman she had thought was her own personal friend and not part of Hemingway’s club, she wrestles with tolerance as well as self-preservation.

She’s spent her years in Paris and Europe surrounded by those eccentrics for whom casual relationships, ménage a trois, open marriages, and all forms of relationships are accepted without a bat of the eye.  McLain’s attention to Hadley’s struggle over what to do about her particular situation and her growing realization of who she is and what she wants brings this woman long known only as Hemingway’ Paris wife into her own.  She loves her husband, but begins to question who he’s become and what it has cost her,  “I knew Ernest’s bravado was almost entirely invented, but I hated to think of all the good friends we’d lost because of his pride and volatile temper . . . .  Just how many others would fall, I wondered as I looked around the candlelit table.”

McLain creates such a distinctive voice for Hadley Richardson that a reader can forget that this is not actually a memoir by Hemingway’s Paris wife.  She gives historical depth to this world at the cusp of a new age.  She creates a story about how a love can grow so strong and fade so quickly, even if it never really ends.  Even if the heroine of this tale had not been the wife of an historical lion, The Paris Wife holds a reader enthralled for the intricate dissection of a marriage that began with so much energy and promise.

What's the story behind this Paris window without a building?
If you've read the book, tell us what you think of it.  If you haven't, then give us a recommendation in the comments box for something we don't want to miss, fiction or non-fiction.


Anonymous said...

I loved that book! Hadley was a bright, interesting woman, and this book held my interest from start to finish. It sent me scurrying back to A Moveable Feast, which also touched me given that in these books we see the young Hemingway and then the older one. Interesting that he never stopped caring about her.

Beverly Diehl said...

"his self-centered, insufferable characters or his outsized machismo" - don't pull any punches, tell us what you REALLY feel about the guy!

I've always had a hard time getting "into" Mr. H myself, now I don't feel so bad.

This, however, sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to add it to my TBR stack.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a fascinating read. Thanks for the recommendation. By the way, for the last year I've been listening to a song called "Mrs. Hemingway" by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Not sure if you've heard of her. But it's a song written from Hadley Richardson's perspective. It's haunting and beautiful. I recommend you listen to it.

Stobby said...

Loved this post. I'll be honest and say that I generally don't have time for blog entries exceeding 300 words (I read a lot of blogs) but this one was so well written and captivating, I couldn't but stay to the end.
And I, too, love that quote.

Stobby gives it two thumbs up.

Laura@Catharsis said...

I have never been a fan of Hemingway, either. I find his writing and his characters insufferable. I should note that it is not quite as insufferable as Hawthorne or Dickens (who, by the way, have great stories; it's just the writing style I can't get behind), but insufferable nonetheless. Ironically, Hemingway is one of my father-in-law's favorite authors, with Old Man and the Sea being his favorite book. Gah. So if you're willing to return to Hemingway after this, perhaps it's worth a look-see. Anything that directs you toward something you've sworn off must have some power behind it.

Julie Farrar said...

Leah, one of the cover blurbs is by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I plan on giving it a listen. I first got into the book when the author made a stop at an indie bookstore here. Some of her relatives were there (she's a St. Louis gal) and they had no complaints about how McLain portrayed their relative. It was how they remembered her.

Muriel said...

As a French woman, I am always amazed that French are seen to be into casual relationships, etc...It is very funny and -in my case- completely wrong! that said, congratulations for having a reading schedule and keeping to it. Not a big fan of Hemingway as well.

Michael Ann said...

Julie, love your review and it definitely makes me want to read the book. I have a huge stack of unread books (I'm sure I'm not the only one!) but this sounds worth adding to my stack ;-) By the way, that was a very touching comment you left on my blog about climbing trees. Thank you!

Glad your husband is ok.

Kat Ward said...

"I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her."

Wow. That is one of the most moving, insightful, well-written sentences I've ever read.

Thank you for the review. As I am also not a huge Hemingway fan, this story seems very intriguing—though a "significant (intimate) other", the first wife's outsider view of her husband and the Lost Generation. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

You're right, McLain gives Hadley her own voice and although I haven't read 'A Moveable Feast' from what has been mentioned it is strange that despite his words and sentiments in relation to her, they only ever see each other one time after the end of their marriage. The pain of a love lost, guilt or indifference?

Hadley comes across as being true, honest and supportive, if a little lost, but Paris definitely gives her backbone and she clearly more than survives, she is courageous, maintians her integrity and is an example to us all.

Julie Farrar said...

I found that interesting also that they never saw each other even though they were parents to a child. I haven't dug into the biography of either enough to know why, or how it affected their son.

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