Tuesday, November 25, 2014
The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
Published February 2011 by Random House Publishing
Source: bought this one to read with my book club
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking, fast-living, and free-loving life of Jazz Age Paris. As Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history and pours himself into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises, Hadley strives to hold on to her sense of self as her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Eventually they find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.
Despite reading a lot of good reviews for this book, I've been put off by it for reasons that seem to have been largely judging a book by its cover...and its title. Even though I knew the book was about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, I'd look at the title and that cover and my brain would say "this is a book about a 1950's wife, blah, blah, blah." But with so many bloggers touting it as a good book club choice, and having recently read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, I decided to have our book club read The Paris Wife this month.
Thank you to all who encouraged me to make that choice! What an excellent book club selection, particularly when you have a group of ladies who have read some Hemingway (in fact, our group read The Sun Also Rises in 2013, which features prominently in this book) and when you have a member who is familiar with Hemingway's third wife, Martha Gelhorn. We had one of our best discussions ever about this book - we talked about the marriage of Ernest and Hadley, about what made Hemingway act the way he did, about the lives and morals of the people who ran with the Hemingways, and about the choices the Hemingways made.
Hadley Richardson would have made Tammy Wynette proud, standing by her man as she did for so long. When they married, Hadley made the decision that her role was to support Ernest and she spent most of their years together allowing him to make most of the decisions in their marriage. For reasons that were easier to understand after reading the book, Hemingway was a very difficult man to be married to, requiring, as he did, constant stroking of the ego and his need for the world to revolve around him. Hadley was not, by her own admission, a "modern" woman who never felt entirely at home in Paris where the fashions and the morals were changing rapidly. But she so loved Ernest that she put up with his moods, his selfishness, and his hypocrisy. Eventually Hemingway pushed away all of his old friends (including Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein) and Hadley. At the end of his life, though, Hemingway admitted "I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."
I'm sure my appreciation for this book was enhanced by the fact that as I was reading it I was thinking about how different aspects would make great discussion points. But I would have enjoyed it even without those thoughts; it's a well-researched book, McClain has done a fine job of channeling Hemingway's style in dialogue, and she's made her characters if not necessarily likable, at least understandable.