A review of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.
Hemingway’s classic, A Moveable Feast, is a well-stewed blend of contradictions, much like the man himself. It is a crucible of a valentine, wrapped in vellum and barbed wire. Notorious for holding grudges and for viciously estranging himself from his peers, Papa’s trip down memory lane means not only warmed-over reminiscences, but also an opportunity to spit acid at Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, and Scott Fitzgerald, to name several. The bruised innocence underlying Hemingway’s sketches, reminds me of the Leonard Cohen lyrics (from “Tower of Song”): I ache in the places/where I used to play.
Three subjects in A Moveable Feast which Hemingway treats with a tender reverence bordering on holy: writing, Paris, and Hadley (his first wife). Cut to Paula McLain’s poignant work of historical fiction, The Paris Wife, which not only captures the spirit of romance between a young Hadley Richardson and an even younger Ernest Hemingway, but also Hemingway’s love affair with the written word, and the artistic community’s freewheeling fling with the zeitgeist that was Paris in the 20s.
The story is told from Hadley’s perspective, yet McLain’s idiom and style is kin to Hemingway’s: an economical balance of casual and strident, breezy and loaded. McLain shines a light on what was both reflective of the era, and an age-old paradigm: that of the woman as anchor, glue, and caretaker to a man’s artistic quest. When Kitty, a friend of Hadley’s, asks her what she gets out of sacrificing for his career, Hadley responds, “The satisfaction of knowing he couldn’t have done it without me.”
The relationship between Hadley and Hemingway was a complicated one, a human one, with both of them drawing dependence from the other in the areas in which they needed it, and both serving as nurturers and agitators to each other’s shadow-life. Hemingway, an easy target for lampooning and myth-busting due to the he-man persona he projected onto the world, is rendered with nuance and richness of dimension, as McLain’s compassionate vision is subtle and spot-on. She suggests the sensitive little boy living inside Hemingway’s bear-cave of a chest, the little boy who perhaps assumed the burden of his brute need to be the biggest and best ever (Hemingway is our Michael Jordan of literature: both men being possessed of insane competitiveness and cut-throat mentalities, needing to not only beat their competition, but to squash and demoralize anyone whom they perceived as a threat to their thrones and legacy).
From Michael Jordan we move to John Lennon serenading Yoko Ono: Woman/I know you understand/the little child inside the man.
Hadley understood the little child living inside Hemingway’s man. And gave him love, and was loved in return, and believed, as did Hemingway, in the sanctity and specialness of that love. Or, in Hadley’s words: “Not everyone believed in marriage then. To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past, too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up . . . Some of us, a very few, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn’t feel holy exactly, I did feel that what we had was rare and true—and that we were safe in the marriage we had built and were building every day.”
The purity of that love, and its dissolution, is the spiritual arc of the novel, its heart that you feel breaking in reverse.
Also, McLain’s cinema-scope viscerally captures Paris as everyone’s insouciant mistress, viewing herself through a glass darkly. Fitzgerald, in his essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” recalls in lush, melancholic tones a honeymoon period destined to become a tragic ballad: “Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said ‘yes, we have no bananas,’ and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were—and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings anymore.”
This is the lost world that McLain so lovingly brings to life in her novel; an homage and elegy to backlit Romanticism in the early 20th century.