This is yet another book that I wanted when it came out, but did not buy it. Paying for a wedding last year put me on a tight book buying budget. However, one of my book club mates, Diana, had it and gave it to me. And I’m so glad she did. It’s another book that I’m truly glad I read. The book, for those who don’t know, is about Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife.
Paula McClain wrote a fictionalized version of the real lives painted so vividly in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. The book doesn’t really read like fiction. It’s been too long since I’ve read A Moveable Feast to compare the two and that wouldn’t really be fair since one is memoir and one is pure fiction. I will say that the one word that comes to mind when I think about the Paris Wife is “lovely”.
The book starts by introducing us to Haldey. She’s from St. Louis and we find out that her family was once well off from pharmaceuticals, but her father killed himself when Hadley was young. And her mother was smothering and her sister in a marriage in which the husband turned out to be a bit nuts. Hadley goes to Chicago to visit her best friend, Kate, and meet the young Mr. Hemingway, fresh from the battlefields of World War I. There is an immediate attraction and Ernest writes her consistently. He tells her that a friend says he needs to go to Rome to be a serious writer. He does not want to go alone and proposes that Hadley go with him – as his wife. He is 22 and she is a bit older. Much to everyone’s surprise, including, I think, Hadley’s she agrees.
They are married in Chicago but change their destination to Paris at the suggestion of another writer. So the newly married Hemingways sail across the Atlantic and end up in Paris. The cost of living is low and they find a cheap apartment. We are introduced to a litany of literary figures who were ex pats in Paris at that time. We meet Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude is enamored of Hemingway’s talent and urges him to write. He meets John Dos Passos and Ezra Pound. And much later in the story, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The story centers on Ernest and Hadley living the life of poor artists. But they always manage to find a way to afford what they need. Ernest writes for a newspaper to support them. They winter in Switzerland and Italy. They spend their time in Paris, Ernest writing and Hadley playing the piano or finding other ways to pass the time.
At its heart, this is a love story. And a story of infidelity and betrayal. Eventually, Haldey bravely decides to leave Ernest. She ends up in the U.S. remarried and seems to have lived a full life, though not much of the book (the last 30 pages, perhaps) are centered on this.
The heart of the story is how Hadley, an admittedly traditional Henry James reading woman, stuck in a place and time where the bucking of convention is more than mere past time. Gertrude and Alice are a lesbian couple in a time when that did not happen. Ernest pursues an affair with Hadley’s best friend, and both he and the friend have the audacity to think that Haldey will go along with Ernest having her and a mistress.
Ms. McClain’s descriptions of the landscape and the people are so vivid that you are there. You are in the French Riveria drinking every night with the high society American Ex Pats, in Paris at the cafes and in the small, dark apartment, in Italy when Ernest takes Hadley to see where he was wounded, only to be psychologically wounded when he discovers the landscape has changed to what it was before the war.
I have to say that if Hadley was anything like Ms. McClaim portrays her, I like her. I like her in the book because she isn’t afraid of admitting her vulnerabilities. She isn’t afraid to admit she feels she would be lost without Ernest. She feels lost when he’s gone on his reporting missions. I can identify with her