Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife
Paula McLain
314 pages
"We were all on the verge now, bursting with youth and promise and little trills of jazz...Girls everywhere stepped out of their corsets and shortened their dresses and darkened their lips and eyes...Youth, in 1921, was everything."  -page 40

Hadley Richardson expected her trip to Chicago to be simple - as she was a simple girl with simple wishes. What she did not expect however, was to fall madly in love with Ernest Hemingway. After a speedy courtship and wedding, the newlyweds set sail for Paris, where the Jazz Age has already swept what becomes known as the "Lost Generation" right up into its chaos. Once there, Ernest throws himself into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises while Hadley struggles to balance the roles of friend, wife, and muse. All too soon, a deception more complicated  than either of them could have imagined, blows the marriage they had built on loyalty and love, to pieces.

My reading of The Paris Wife was another side effect of my addiction to Jazz Age-America and Paris. It was an extremely important decade for women, and so much great literature and art arose from the joy and frivolity that followed World War I. I often wonder if I would have had the guts to sneak into a speakeasy for a shot of vodka, or the self-confidence to light up a cigarette with other women loving the freedom of hiking up our skirts past our ankles.

The Paris Wife is the second novel I have read (the first being Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald) that tells the story of the wife of one of America's greatest writers. Both novels explore the creative conflicts that occurred within each couple and detail the time period vividly. Although someday I hope to be a great writer myself, and not just the wife of one, both novels give an eye opening account of what it's like to live in literature's circle.

I almost missed Paula McLain's author's note at the very back of the book, it was not until I began to write this review that I found it, and now I'm quite glad I did. McLain makes it clear that The Paris Wife is a work of fiction, therefore making Hadley and Ernest fictional characters, but she also notes that she tried to make them as true to themselves as possible. The author mentioned that she did not travel to Paris to do research, but rather did not make the trip until after the book was published. The best part of the trip she said, was standing below the window of 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, the apartment where Ernest and Hadley lived together throughout their years in Paris.

Hadley Richardson's voice is authentic and engaging throughout the novel. She captivated me with the simple lens through which she looked at life, and the genuine feelings she had for those around her. Cameos from other literary figures such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and the Fitzgeralds, can be read throughout the novel, but McLain makes a clear distinction between Hadley and these famous characters. Hadley was content with living her life, rather than making an extraordinary one, as people like Ernest and F. Scott Fitzgerald were obsessed with. McLain does an excellent job in juxtaposing these too separate views, and encircles the plot around it in a way that leads to the dissolution of the Hemingways' marriage.

Hadley divorced Ernest in 1927, even though she was still in love with him, after struggling with their differences and upon learning of his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer. She says, "He had four wives altogether...It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife" (page 311).

But then, a few lines later she notes, in what is my favorite quote of the novel:

"We knew what we had and what it meant...and there was nothing like those years in Paris, after the war. Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other."

The novel had a much sadder ending than I had expected, and I was left feeling both happy that Hadley had found love after Ernest, but extremely upset that happiness had never found Ernest. The ending of The Paris Wife becomes all the more heart-wrenching, when noting that in the last few pages of Ernest's memoir, A Moveable Feast, he writes of Hadley, "I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."

The Paris Wife was the winner of the 2011 Best Historical Fiction Goodreads Choice Award and was named one of the Best Books of the Year by People Magazine, NPR and The Chicago Tribune.

Story Line - 9/10
Narrator's Voice - 10/10
Writing Style - 9/10

Overall - 28/30

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