Like fellow BGB Blogger, Shaft, I love Paris. In fact, I am traveling there in a couple of weeks to introduce the City of Lights to my eight year old daughter. I had seen The Paris Wife by Paula McLain in every bookstore window but knew nothing about it until Shaft’s great review (read it here). I knew I had to put it on my list immediately and decided to listen to the audio version. Shaft’s review is dead on, so my commentary is only to confirm “what he said” without repeating too much.
The Paris Wife is indeed the story of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson’s marriage as told from Hadley’s point of view. The story moves easily from their meeting to their marriage and through all of their travels – Paris, Italy, Spain, Germany, Canada. They moved around a lot. In each location they were able to make friends with all the vanguards of the era: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald, Sherman Anderson. I was amazed at the lifestyles they lead including sexually open marriages and a motherload of cocktails and wine.
The 1920’s was an interesting time in history, for women especially. The 1920′s woman was emerging as a stronger force then she had been, more edgy and more opinionated. She cut her long hair into a bob (VERY edgy) and the corsette accompanying those long Victorian dresses were giving way to a more comfortable style à la Coco Channel. Hadley, eight years older than Ernest, was still a bit old-fashioned. Despite their lack of money and her frequent unhappiness, Hadley was willing to sacrifice her life and her career as a concert pianist, for Ernest’s ambition. She tried her best to keep the relationship going even while Ernest’s eye began to wander and he eventually bedded her best friend. Although when they married, Ernest was still a relatively unknown, during their marriage his popularity gained momentum with the success of The Sun Also Rises based on their travels to Spain. Their childhood experiences make their attraction inevitable. Ernest didn’t want a wife like his mother, and his egocentric personality boded well with the nurturing Hadley.
Although at times Hadley struck me as a woman all too eager to suffer for love, I was thrilled that she ultimately gained the strength to do what was best for her and their son. Even though Hadley had no clue what the future held, we know that Ernest Hemingway was destined for a miserable life, but she wasn’t. And that made me happy.
I lived in Paris in the 1980’s and although still cool – the famous Parisian eras of impressionist painters and Hemingway’s literary cronies were long over. Heck, even Madonna who began her career in France had already come and gone. Throughout The Paris Wife, Ms. McLain reminds us that the Hemingways and their famous friends hung out at places where even I have memories: the Latin Quarter, Boulevard St. Germain, La Coupole, La Rotunde, Deux Magots, Montparnasse, and Brasserie Lipp. In its splendor, Paris remains a character in this and many other novels and stories, as it should be. You can’t forget Paris!
Prior to reading The Paris Wife, I am ashamed to admit that my knowledge of Hemingway consisted of The Old Man and the Sea from high school and his house in Key West with the seven-toed cats. I can honestly say that A Movable Feast (based on his life with Hadley in Paris) and The Sun Also Rises are now on my list.