Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book 51: The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain

While the topic interested me, the deciding factor was that I read a few different positive reviews of this novel from a variety of sources. Unfortunately, I didn't quite agree with them. The novel is told from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife or "the Paris wife." They met in Chicago after the Great War, and married after a swift courtship. Hadley, about eight or nine years older than her groom, lived a rather sheltered life and was a bit innocent and old-fashioned compared to her husband in some ways. The couple eventually decide to move to Paris for Ernest's writing career.

While there, the newlyweds make the acquaintance of several Americans and artists that are already big names (at least within the arts community if not the general public just yet), including Gertrude Stein and later the Fitzgeralds. Ernest writes and works while Hadley plays the supportive wife for these first few years. They also drink a lot, and Hadley realizes just how much her life revolves around her husband when he leaves for journalism assignments to supplement their income.

I realize that since this is historical fiction, there is a limit on what the characters can do, but it is still fiction, meaning the author can take certain liberties to add drama to the story (otherwise, I would just read nonfiction) - there is a certain amount of leniency that historical fiction novelists are given as long as they don't go too crazy or become too inaccurate. While it was definitely interesting to read about these years in Hemingway's life as well as his relationship with women given how very macho his writing is, the novel was a bit slow or dull for me. It wasn't badly-written, and the novel certainly explored some of Hemingway's flaws, such as taking some things to seriously, his need to proof his manliness, and his falling out with friends due to stubbornness and pride, I wasn't hooked. It took me a few days to get through this, because I just wasn't in a hurry to read the rest. Hadley always reassures Hemingway about his writing, and they go off on various vacations, and then he finally gets some short stories published. In ways, their struggle didn't quite hit home because I knew that soon enough Hemingway would be the world famous author Hemingway, and since they were constantly going on trips, they couldn't have been struggling that much anyway, right? And yet, it took longer for Hemingway to become successful than I expected or realized.

I enjoyed the last third of the novel the most, which follows Hemingway's trip to Pamplona, and basically recreates the scene that inspired The Sun Also Rises (which I want to revisit now), and then also documents a disintegrating marriage. Had there been warning signs before? As a reader and someone who knows that Hadley wasn't Hemingway's last wife, it is easy to judge some of the marriage scenes in the early years and see signs even if they aren't there. From a modern sensibility, Hadley is too wrapped up around Hemingway, but even she points out that in '20s Paris, her lifestyle was considered old-fashioned. The main issue with the portrayal of Hadley as the happy supportive housewife is that it doesn't make for a very exciting protagonist. She seemed too bland or too much like a blank slate for much of the novel rather than a distinct character - in fact, she could have been pulled out of any generic historical fiction piece.

The novel does an alright job of telling the story and setting the scene, but maybe this marriage wasn't that exciting, or something more was needed in the first half of the book to make it more engaging. The author says she was inspired to write this after reading Hemingway's portrayal of his first marriage in A Moveable Feast, so readers may get more satisfaction from that particular book - I think I read the first chapter of it many years ago, and put it down because Hemingway ordered a lot of drinks, and that was all that happened, so I was easily distracted by other novels. The novel has made me curious about Hemingway again, and the reality of this, so it does succeed in at least making the reader want more. It would have been nice if some of that more had come from the novel itself, though.

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