Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

There have been two books this year that took my reading breath away. The first was Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland, and I will post separately about this. The second, and most recent, was The Paris Wife by Paula McClain.

From Booklist (via Amazon)
History is sadly neglectful of the supporting players in the lives of great artists. Fortunately, fiction provides ample opportunity to bring these often fascinating personalities out into the limelight. Gaynor Arnold successfully resurrected the much-maligned Mrs. Charles Dickens in Girl in a Blue Dress (2009), now Paula McLain brings Hadley Richardson Hemingway out from the formidable shadow cast by her famous husband. Though doomed, the Hemingway marriage had its giddy high points, including a whirlwind courtship and a few fast and furious years of the expatriate lifestyle in 1920s Paris. Hadley and Ernest traveled in heady company during this gin-soaked and jazz-infused time, and readers are treated to intimate glimpses of many of the literary giants of the era, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the real star of the story is Hadley, as this time around, Ernest is firmly relegated to the background as he almost never was during their years together. Though eventually a woman scorned, Hadley is able to acknowledge without rancor or bitterness that "Hem" had "helped me to see what I really was and what I could do."  Much more than a "woman-behind-the-man" homage, this beautifully crafted tale is an unsentimental tribute to a woman who acted with grace and strength as her marriage crumbled.

Hadley viewing narcissus
The Rhone Valley was in top form just then, with narcissus blooming in every bare patch of meadow and in the jagged crevices of rock. The first time I saw a narcissus pushing through ice and thriving, I thought it was perfect and wanted that kind of determination for myself.

On laughter
Everyone laughed, and it was one of those domino moments. That laugh would eventually set off an entire series of events, but not yet. It just stood there in the room, tipping and tipping, but not falling. Not falling yet. Not quite.

Hadley on Ernest’s The Torrents of Spring
It wasn't until that moment that I fully understood how hurt he'd been when everyone, including me, had disparaged the book and shut it down. He loved and needed praise. He loved and needed to be loved, and even adored.

On Ernest’s hubris
I knew Ernest's bravado was almost entirely invented, but I hated to think of all the good friends we'd lost because of his pride and volatile temper, starting in Chicago with Kenley. Lewis Galantiere, our first friend in Paris, had stopped speaking to Ernest when he'd called Lewis's fiancee a despicable shrew. Bob McAlmon had finally had enough of Ernest's bragging and rudeness and now crossed the street to avoid us in Paris. Harold Loeb had never recovered from Pamplona, and Sherwood and Gertrude, two of Ernest's biggest champions, now topped the long and painful list.

Bicycles as metaphor
On the crushed rock path along the windward side of the hotel, three bicycles stood on their stands. If you looked at the bicycles one way, they looked very solid, like sculpture, with afternoon light glinting cleanly off the chrome handlebars--one, two, three, all in a row. If you looked at them another way, you could see just how thin each kickstand was under the weight of the heavy frame, and how they were poised to fall like dominoes or the skeletons of elephants or like love itself.

On believing
People belong to each other only as long as they both believe. He's stopped believing.

Hadley & Ernest
A summing up
In the end, Ernest didn't have the luck I did in love. He had two more sons, both with Pauline, and then left her for another. And left that one for another, too. He had four wives altogether and many lovers as well. It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife. But that was probably vanity, wanting to stand out in a long line of women. In truth it didn't matter what others saw. We knew what we had and what it meant, and though so much had happened since for both of us, there was nothing like those years in Paris, after the war. Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.

There was always this picture of Ernest Hemingway in my mind—the older, bearded literary giant. Here in The Paris Wife, the picture sharpened with the details of the younger, insecure struggling author. This fictional rendering expanded and enhanced my mind picture of Hemingway and urged the taking up of The Moveable Feast as well as revisiting The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Perhaps there are clues there that will add nuance to the picture of Papa Hemingway.

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