Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

Put Paris in the title, and I'm automatically interested.  Set the story during the twenties, the Jazz Age/Lost Generation, and feature characters such as Scott and Zelda, Gertrude and Alice and Ernest Hemingway and yeah, it's being added to the "to be read" list.  I'm fascinated by that time period.

This story cut to the top of my "to be read" list when I needed an audiobook for my drive to Austin.  So many hours in the car, have to try to be productive with my time.  So I checked out a few audiobooks that have been on my ever growing "to be read" list.  I was so happy to see this available, as the book is fairly new and there is usually a long waiting list for new books. 

I really enjoyed this story.  Easily passed the time during the drive, and I barely noticed as I sat in a huge traffic snare on the way home.  (I believe it took about an hour and a half to move less than ten miles.) 

I admit I don't know a lot about Hemingway.  Of his work, I've only read a few short stories and A Farewell to Arms - which I consider one of my favorite books.  But most people are familiar with the idea of Hemingway, "a man's man", a fighter and hunter, served in the war and traveled around the world.  This is the story of his early twenties, while living in Paris, as told through the eyes of his wife.
Hadley is the "Paris wife," the first of four wives he would eventually have.  She was the one who was with him before he became known as one of the greatest writers of his generation.  She was with him when all he had was his dreams and ideas, when they lived in a small apartment above a dance hall in Paris because it was all they could afford. 

Hadley's 29 when she meets the handsome 21 year old Ernest Hemingway.  Already he's a character, well known among his group of friends as being something of a ladies man.  Hadley's friends try to warn her away from him, but she falls hard for this man.  Even at 21, he possessed the qualities that turned him into the myth that the world would eventually know.  He was passionate and strong.  Hadley had lived a sheltered life, she'd been devastated by the suicide of her father and the death of her sister.  Her attempt at attending college had been short-lived.  She lived with her mother and cared for her until she died.  Hemingway represented everything that was missing from Hadley's life.  Despite being younger than her, he'd already seen much of the world, having served in the war and been wounded.  He'd already been in love and had his heart broken.  He was ready to take on the world, while Hadley was still hesitate to enter a world outside of her home.

Newly married, they have plans to move to Rome, but then Hemingway is told Paris is the place to be - that's where all the writers and the artists are living now.  So they move to Paris and become friends with Ezra Pound and his wife, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.  In the beginning though, this is simply the story of a couple in the early stages of marriage, still learning about each other and getting used to their living arrangements, as Ernest is trying to establish himself as a writer.  Unlike Ernest, Hadley doesn't have any grand ambitions.  She wants a simple life, she wants a happy home and to please her husband.  As depicted in this book, she is a sharp contrast to the other women in their social circle.  This was a time in which the women in Paris were seeking their independence, trying to become equal partners with the men in their lives, selecting their own careers and interests.  Also this was a time in which couples were openly and boldly redefining long-held ideas about relationships.  Hadley's own desires seemed old-fashioned and out of place and as some of her friends commented, "Very American."

As someone who can't relate to the yearning to have a simple life and family, I had trouble relating to Hadley.  She seemed much too dependent on her husband, and weak.  She allowed him to make all the decisions about their life together.  I couldn't help but cringe when she describes him keeping track of her menstrual cycle in a notebook.  She's a 31 year old woman at the time, allowing her 22 year old husband to tell her when and how to use birth control.  She seems content to hand over all of her autonomy, without question, and does so because she loves her husband so much.

As Hemingway becomes more successful and more involved in their circle of friends, he begins to feel entitled to live as the others do.  Suddenly his wife isn't enough for him.  Why can't he do like his friends and have a girl on the side?  Everyone else is doing it.  And so he begins an affair with one of Hadley's friends.  An affair which Hadley tolerates, even allowing this woman into their home and into their bed in one especially horrible instance.  She seems to do this because she feels she has no other choice, she loves her husband so much and after years of doing as he wants, doesn't seem to know how to do otherwise.

Considering that Hemingway's future relationships didn't work out too well, I have to wonder if maybe a better way of loving him might have been to exert some force, to take back some control and issue a few demands.  Maybe Hadley could have saved her marriage as well as her husband.  But that wasn't the kind of person she was.  So instead, she agreed to a divorce so he could marry his mistress.

I don't know how accurate the story is.  I don't know that it matters.  Some reviews I've read of the book say it's too romantic and sentimental.  But isn't that sort of fitting with the story of Hemingway?  Shouldn't a story about him and those who loved him be a bit extreme?  I wasn't looking for a dry, textbook version of their story.  With this book, I got exactly what I was hoping for, a romantic story about two people very much in love with each other who did their best to make things work, but ultimately failed.  But more than that, this novel painted a picture of a time period that I revisit as often as possible through literature and film, a Paris filled with artists and intellectuals, people trying to change the world or create their own brand new world, using their words and art.  The story is written in such a way that readers become easily immersed in the Roaring Twenties of Paris, the words recreating the energy that much have existed within that atmosphere, ideas drifting in and out of cafes and salons. 

And now I'm off to find a copy of Moveable Feast to read about Ernest's version of this time period.

Finished: March 18, 2011

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