Once upon a time I read them – the monumental names of the preceding one hundred years. Hardy, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Greene – why, I even tried to get through ‘Ulysses’. And, of course, I read him – Papa Hemingway (the book in review tells how he received that appellation). But once I started devouring the fiction of my own times, eventually realising that was far more to my taste, the classics withered. It’s been decades since I picked one up – but I keep promising myself I will read ‘Gatsby’ just one more time.
Turning the pages of ‘The Paris Wife’ put me in mind of one of Woody Allen’s better movies of his later period, ‘Midnight in Paris’. Here the Owen Wilson character travels back in time to meet all the great men and women reshapers of modern culture; those who hung out there in that burb in the twenties. They populated the boulevards and Left Bank garrets, mixing in the intellectual ferment that would hopefully extend the boundaries of their artistic talent – when they weren’t carousing on the effects of various fermented beverages. This tome has them all too – Pound, Fitzgeraldx2, Stein and Joyce – amongst others. ‘Paris Wife’ is the story of Hemingway’s rise to prominence during his first marriage to Hadley Richardson.
This product from American writer Paula McLain was a popular success in her home country, topping the NY Times best-seller list. The critics weren’t so crazy about it though – one calling it ‘…cliche-ridden…And it moves ploddingly.’
We view the great wordsmith through Hadley’s eyes, so we do not really get the answer as to why a young man about town would choose to marry an older woman, variously described as unfashionable, set in her ways, conservative, thick – in both senses of the word – and tediously dull. Perhaps it was the stipend that came with her hand? They were together for six years – the Paris years. But when the bright and flapperesquely vivacious Pauline Pfeiffer crossed Hem’s path, her days were numbered. Evidently Hemingway himself portrayed Richardson in his writings in a much more positive light than she was in reality. It would be interesting to compare the two takes. It’s so long ago that I read his memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’. Maybe I will revisit it one day. The reason for his kinder approach could be that it would be too much for his quite immense ego to have been associated by marriage with such a dullard.
Anyway, as we have already ascertained, Paris was the place to be for any aspiring writer, so off the wannabe novelist and Hadley scampered to the City of Light as soon as the necessary readies became available. There are no great revelations in in McLain’s semi-imagined account and it has probably been done better elsewhere. After all, Hemingway’s personal life has been chewed over for decades. But, for this scribe, the novel was always readable – it was far from the supposed ‘plod’ ascribed to it.
The author herself has had a few collections of poetry published, as well as her own memoir (Like Family; Growing Up in Other People’s Homes’). Her freshman novel was ‘Ticket to Ride’; her latest tells the story of aviator Beryl Markham. The author had a tough upbringing, being fostered out at an early age after the early departure (thus the memoir) of her mother and the criminal activities of her dad. At age twenty-four she enrolled in a class of creative writing, was hooked, found she had talent and away she went. ‘The Paris Wife’ obviously required a fair dollop of research and the book doesn’t shy away from Hadley’s shortcomings. But it’s hard not to kinda like Hemingway’s put upon spouse and we know the outcome of it all before we start. Her second marriage, to foreign correspondent Paul Mowrer, was far more successful.
Patently she was not up to the pace of life the great writer engaged in once he started to garner some fame. She was outshone by all his new found friends as they dashed back and forth across Western Europe – sometimes with her and their child Bumby in tow, sometimes not. There was, as McLain portrayed her, a certain steadfastness to Hadley that saw her stick to her husband for as long as possible as he, incrementally, became more selfish, flighty, fragile and besotted with the feminine allure of the literary groupies that started to hang off his every utterance.
‘The Paris Wife’ is definitely worthy of consideration for any wishing to delve back into those times, but also for something that is easily digestible. Throw in ‘A Moveable Feast’ and ‘Midnight in Paris’ – that would be all you’d need to get a handle on an era that will probably never be repeated.
Paula McLain website = http://paulamclain.com/