Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Hadley Richardson was a 28-year-old St. Louis woman living with her married sister's family and facing a dreary future. Then, in 1920, she met the 20-year-old Ernest Hemingway at a party on a visit to Chicago, and her life changed forever (as newscasters and talk show hosts love to say).  Drawing on historical sources, Paula McLain tells their story--how, despite the damage his wartime experiences had done to his psyche, Hemingway charmed her, how they first pursued their relationship through letters but then rather quickly married.

Within a  year, they had moved to Paris so Hemingway could pursue his writing. He met the literary expat community in Paris and quickly became a favorite of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and others (eventually, he alienated most of the expat crowd). Hadley found herself consigned to the role of writer's wife and, while she resented the role--after all, she was a pianist and fancied herself a bit of an artist--was willing to do whatever she must to help her husband achieve the literary greatness they both felt was assured.

Of course, we know from the historical record, that things will not turn out well for their marriage, and Hadley's unplanned pregnancy,and the appearance of Pauline Pfeiffer (with heavy foreshadowing signaling the dire events to come) begin the spiral toward divorce.

Knowing what I did about Hemingway, I did not expect to like him as a character in this novel told from his wife's point of view--and I didn't. But what surprised me was that I found him a sad (if not pathetic) character. Suffering from what we would now call post-trauamatic stress disorder, he comes across as the kind of man who covers his insecurity with excessive macho behavior and competitiveness When Hadley packed all of his work into a suitcase and then left it in a train compartment, inviting its theft, I even felt sympathetic toward him! Certainly, the alcohol-washed and morally challenged expat community was not an ideal place for someone with his issues (any romantic notions I might have harbored about the literati in Paris were squelched by McLain's depiction).

Paula McLain has said that she was inspired by Hemingway's memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast, to study and write about Hadley.  Unfortunately, her imagining of Hadley lacks the kind of psychological detail that I would expect in a fictionalized account. A straight-forward biography might have served us just as well--and might have been a better fit with McLain's rather pedestrian style (apologies to biographies with non-pedestrian styles).

Favorite passage:
There were some who said I should have fought harder or longer than I did for my marriage, but in the end fighting for a love that was already gone felt like trying to live in the ruins of a lost city.

1 comment:

  1. A "novel" way to learn about Hemingway and his early years as a writer. Seems more like an autobiography than fiction. Very realistic and insightful.