Friday, September 30, 2011

Thought on a book: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Its just after the war, the one that was to end them all, and it begins in Chicago.  This is the life of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, fleshed out by imagination, sympathy and affection.  It is told in the first person by the quietly passionate Hadley Richardson who is soon captivated by the young man she meets while staying with friends.  Hemingway is younger, different, electrifying; Hadley's life is instantly changed by him "tall and lean, with a lot of very dark hair, and a dimple in his left cheek you could fall into."

In a flash she is in Paris, married and swept away by the Jazz Age fervour that is everywhere in her new life.  Famous names slip through the pages like quicksilver as the couple are befriended by Gertrude Stein, (Ezra) Pound, F Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway takes their advice and writes and polishes and fills his notebooks.  Hadley is described by her husband as his "small perfect cat" and she carries this nickname proudly, curling up in all sorts of small places and content to be with him.

I continued to be annoyed by Hemingway throughout the story, perhaps as a result of identifying with the storyteller as she related the joys of her marriage along with the small adjustments she constantly and happily made to avoid puncturing the bubble that sustained their life.  Despite it being a time of increasing emancipation for women, Hadley contented herself with doing whatever made Ernest happiest.  In the end, it was exactly this value that Hemingway squandered by falling for a brighter more demanding woman and the time of the First Wife was done. That he would kill himself so dramatically, wearing a red robe and standing in a pool of light,  seemed obvious from the very beginning - or is that hindsight?
I loved the descriptions of everywhere the couple and their friends went - the gardens, the bullfights, the train journeys, the apartments, the snowfields.  Cleary McLain delved deep into the Hemingway papers and painted a believable and ultimately sad picture of the brief fierce romance that was the first of four marriages for Hemingway.  At the end of the book Hadley calls herself "that impossibly lucky girl" and I'd like to know more about her.

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