” Everything could be snarled all to hell under the surface as long as you didn’t let it crack through and didn’t speak its name, particularly not at cocktail hour, when everyone was very jolly and working hard to be that way and to show how perfectly good life could be if you were lucky, as we were. Just have your drink, and another and don’t spoil it. ” (Ch.42, p.283-4)
The heroine of The Paris Wife is not just any wife living in Paris, but Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s unfashionable but cultured first wife. The married in 1921 after a short courtship in Chicago and were divorced in 1927 in Paris. Obviously no novelist would be telling her story had she not married Ernest Hemingway. The book is about their marriage when they lived in Paris during the 1920s, told from the point of view of Hadley, who serves to reign him in through life in the midst of big-league company like Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Scott Fitzgerald.
It was only then that I let myself feel the whole weight of my own anxiety. So lost, he’d said, and I could see it in his eyes, which reminded me of father’s. What did it all mean? Was this crisis related to his experiences in the war? Did those memories descend to plague him from time to time, or was this more personal? (Ch.11, p.68)
Throughout the reading I have the feeling that Hadley is more like a mother figure than a wife. She herself isn’t all that young during their courtship—she was 29 and he 21. In the company of artists and writers, she seems a stodgy bore. She lives in a different world—one that adheres to traditional values like raising children and sustaining a family. She knows she shouldn’t resent Hemingway’s working or try to keep him from it, but she’s always the happiest in his company. “He lived inside the creative sphere and I lived outside, and I didn’t know if anything would ever change that.” (Ch.16, p.107)
The book draws heavily on research, and parts of it invoke Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Hadley’s voice mirrors that of hers in Hemingway’s memoir. The book, however, is unevenly written. The first half is cliché-ridden (“I can do anything if I have you with me.”) and inundated with name dropping. Along come the literati, whose great works become topics of stilted banter. Hadley (to my annoyance) often paraphrases what they say. Although the second half focuses on Hadley and the gamut of her emotions, it lacks characterization. Her anxiety is made very raw from motherhood. Once the baby is born Hadley’s situation rapidly becomes untenable. Hard-partying bohemian expatriates hardly value traditional notions of family and fidelity. Soon the baby, Hadley’s gaffe of losing the valise that holds all of Hemingway’s early work and the intrusion of a mistress all contribute to the dissolution of the marriage.
And even if he didn’t admit to me, I knew he was suffering because he’d hurt me badly with the affair. Knowing he was suffering pained me. That’s the way love tangles you up. I couldn’t stop loving him . . . (Ch.39, p.264)
Yes, the book paints Hemingway a louse who would up treating Hadley terribly. But, as sympathetic as I might feel for her, it’s also foolish of her trying to morph into Hemingway. It makes a stand for Hadley but certainly no measure for A Moveable Feast for its lack of reflective depth. The best passages are found in the prologue and the epilogue.
320 pp. Ballantine Books. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Literature, General Fiction, Literature Tagged: | American Literature, Books, General Fiction, Literary Biography, Literature, Paula McLain, The Paris Wife