Review: 'The Paris Wife' by Paula McLain

The cover of "The Paris Wife" by Paula The cover of "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain (Ballantine, Feb 2011). Photo Credit: Handout

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REVIEW

There was Pauline, then Martha, then Mary. But they were preceded by Elizabeth, known as Hadley - the first wife of Ernest Hemingway.

"The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain (author of the memoir "Like Family" and a novel, "A Ticket to Ride") is a fictionalized portrait of that marriage, which deteriorated shortly before Hemingway's debut novel, "The Sun Also Rises," was published in 1927. Although McLain adheres closely to biographies of the author, she strips away the mythic narrative to offer a more private and vulnerable side, and a vivid sense of his daily life. In the novel's protagonist, Hadley Richardson, McLain reveals a resilient woman struggling to find herself in the shadow of her formidable husband. "His preoccupation with his work made me sharply aware that I had no passion of my own," Hadley says of their early days.

The couple met in 1920, married a year later and set off for Paris, steeping themselves in bohemian culture. They befriended expat writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound. James Joyce and Picasso could be seen walking the city streets. "Interesting people were everywhere just then," Hadley recalls. "The cafes of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers." It was a heady and reckless time, fueled by alcohol and promiscuity.

Yet Hadley feels lonely in Paris and finds that her husband is too consumed by his fierce ambition to notice. "Many days he came home looking exhausted, defeated," she recalls, "as if he'd been struggling with sacks of coal all day instead of with one sentence at a time." She can't help envying his closeness with Gertrude Stein. "She and Ernest had a special intensity together - almost as if they were twin siblings with a private language, zeroing in on and hearing the other almost exclusively," Hadley says.

In the presence of Stein and other literary luminaries, Hadley is insecure and shy. Her husband, however, "took up all the air in the room and magnetized and drew everyone to him, men and women and children and dogs."

Although Hadley seems the ideal wife for Hemingway - "flexible and accommodating" - he is resentful when she gets pregnant in 1923 (with their son, John, called "Bumby"), viewing it as a threat to his writing career. Even Pound admonishes her: "I think it would be a terrible mistake if you tried to utterly domesticate him."

"The Paris Wife" charts the slow decline of the Hemingway marriage, which reaches a crisis point in 1925 with the appearance of Pauline Pfeiffer, a glamorous Vogue writer with a trust fund. She and Hadley form an unlikely friendship, but Hadley can't help noticing that Pauline is "always maneuvering her way toward the most interesting people and sizing them up to see how they might be of use to her."

Soon, Pauline sets her sights on Hemingway himself. She becomes his second wife (and mother of two sons with him), but eventually he leaves her for another woman. Hadley ends up happily remarried to a journalist named Paul who she knew "would love me forever and not ruin me, not even a little."

McLain's novel not only gives Hadley a voice, but one that seems authentic and admirable. There's a quiet dignity to the woman often dismissed as "the early wife, the Paris wife," in Hemingway's long line of women. Theirs was an extraordinary marriage, despite its ultimate failure. Hemingway wrote of Hadley in "A Moveable Feast" that "I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."

Of course, a certain amount of bravery is required in writing a novel that channels a giant of American literature. Yet McLain pulls it off convincingly, conveying Hemingway's interior life and his profound struggles. She makes a compelling case that Hadley was a crucial (and long-lasting) influence on Hemingway's writing life: a partner as well as a cheerleader. She also revisits, with remarkable detail, a singular era in history, one that would produce some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century.

To read this novel is to become wholly immersed in Jazz Age Paris - filled with volatile, brilliant artists hungry to make their mark, no matter who suffered grievous harm along the way.

THE PARIS WIFE, by Paula McLain. Ballantine Books, 320 pp., $25.

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Excerpt from "The Paris Wife":

The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes and say, "It's possible I'm too drunk to judge, but you might have something there."

It's October 1920 and jazz is everywhere. I don't know any jazz, so I'm playing Rachmaninoff. I can feel a flush beginning in my cheeks from the hard cider my dear pal Kate Smith has stuffed down me so I'll relax. I'm getting there, second by second. It starts in my fingers, warm and loose, and moves along my nerves, rounding through me. I haven't been drunk in over a year - not since my mother fell seriously ill - and I've missed the way it comes with its own perfect glove of fog, settling snugly and beautifully over my brain. I don't want to think, and I don't want to feel, either, unless it's as simple as this beautiful boy's knee inches from mine.

The knee is nearly enough on its own, but there's a whole package of a man attached, tall and lean, with a lot of very dark hair and a dimple in his left cheek you could fall into. His friends call him Hemingstein, Oinbones, Bird, Nesto, Wemedge, anything they can dream up on the spot. He calls Kate Stut or Butstein (not very flattering!), and another fellow Little Fever, and yet another Horney or the Great Horned Article. He seems to know everyone, and everyone seems to know the same jokes and stories. They telegraph punch lines back and forth in code, lightning fast and wisecracking. I can't keep up, but I don't mind really. Being near these happy strangers is like a powerful transfusion of good cheer.

When Kate wanders over from the vicinity of the kitchen, he points his perfect chin at me and says, "What should we name our new friend?"

"Hash," Kate says.

"Hashedad's better," he says. "Hasovitch."

"And you're Bird?" I ask.

"Wem," Kate says.

"I'm the fellow who thinks someone should be dancing." He smiles with everything he's got, and in very short order, Kate's brother Kenley has kicked the living room carpet to one side and is manning the Victrola. We throw ourselves into it, dancing our way through a stack of records. He's not a natural, but his arms and legs are free in their joints, and I can tell that he likes being in his body. He's not the least shy about moving in on me either. In no time at all our hands are damp and clenched, our cheeks close enough that I can feel the very real heat of him. And that's when he finally tells me his name is Ernest.

"I'm thinking of giving it away, though. Ernest is so dull, and Hemingway? Who wants a Hemingway?"

Probably every girl between here and Michigan Avenue, I think, looking at my feet to keep from blushing. When I look up again, he has his brown eyes locked on me.

"Well? What do you think? Should I toss it out?"

"Maybe not just yet."

A slow number starts, and without asking, he reaches for my waist and scoops me toward his body, which is even better up close. His chest is solid and so are his arms. I rest my hands on them lightly as he backs me around the room, past Kenley cranking the Victrola with glee, past Kate giving us a long, curious look. I close my eyes and lean into Ernest, smelling bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cotton - and everything about this moment is so sharp and lovely, I do something completely out of character and just let myself have it.

Excerpted from "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain. Copyright © 2011 by Paula McLain. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Paula McLain, author of "The Paris Wife" (Ballantine, Feb 2011). Photo Credit: Stephen Curti Photo

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