Monday, September 05, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be Paris, France. If I had a time machine, it would be set for Paris in the 20s. Paris between the World Wars has always fascinated me for the wonderful cast of writers and philosophers that hung out in the cafes, the museums, the French Quarter, the restaurants, and the boulevards.

Good fortune took me to Paris a number of times, and from the first, and every trip after, I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – one of my favorite books. I loved the story of Papa struggling to establish himself as a writer, befriending Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and, of course, the proprietor of the famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. Ms Beach wrote her own version of all these characters.

The Paris Wife tells the fictionalized account of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. The story from her viewpoint goes into much more detail about the feud which developed between Hem and Gertrude, Hem and Anderson, and finally his break up with Hadley. The acknowledgments offers a list of the sources for her story, including biographies, letters, diaries, and all of Hemingway’s fiction. In a graduate class at Baylor, I read all these things, too, and came to a deeper understanding of Hemingway as a man as well as a writer. This novel adds to that understanding.

My impression of Hemingway was that of a drinker, brawler, and womanizer. True, he was always all these things, but McLain’s novel brings into focus another side of Hemingway – father, husband, lover, and friend. The novel puts a soft, feminine touch on Papa’s hard edges.

I especially liked the passages in which Hadley describes some of the great men and women she met. McClain writes, “We’d glimpsed Joyce a few times on the streets of Montparnasse, with his neatly combed hair and rimless glasses and shapeless coat, but we’d never heard him speak. ‘He does speak,’ Lewis [Galantière, writer and friend of Sherwood Anderson] insisted, ‘but only under duress.’ ‘Everyone says Ulysses is great,’ Ernest said. ‘I’ve read a few serialized chapters. It’s not what I’m used to, but you know, something important is happening in it just the same.’” (82) Hemingway recognized the great novel needs to be slowly and carefully consumed to experience all the tastes, smells, sounds, and textures of what many lists called the best novel of the 20th century.

A frequently quoted statement of Hemingway’s also found its way into the novel. He tells Hadley, “I want to write one true sentence. If I can write one sentence -- simple and true, every day, I’ll be satisfied” (81).

One horrific episode, in which Hadley’s character comes out, involves the loss of the briefcase with all of Hemingway’s work. Hadley is in a state of anguish for a long time, but Hemingway seems to take it in stride. Gertrude Stein tells him, “I think your losing everything has been a blessing. You needed to be free. To start over with nothing and make something truly new” (152). Gertrude played an important role in Hemingway’s development as a writer, and only his stubborn pride destroyed their relationship.

McLain has added to the myth, the lore, the beauty, the anguish, and the wonderful time of Paris in the 20s. The absorbing story of a romance, art, writing, and living in a time and place unlike any other, should appeal to all readers interested in the arts of reading and writing. Five stars

--Chiron, 9/5/11

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