Regular readers of Persephone Writes will already know about my literary obsession with Paris. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone when I say that I absolutely loved The Paris Wife, by Paula McClain, our second book pick for the Literary Wives series. It is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time: the story is riveting and absorbing, and the book is a brilliant study in craft. It’s a tour de force, an epic love story as well as a trip back to one of the most romantic literary periods in history.
The novel is based on the real-life love affair and marriage of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson. As the title of the book implies, there is more than one wife: Hem was married four times, and Hadley was his first wife – the Paris wife. The couple spent the better part of their five year marriage in Paris among the many literary expatriates who flocked there in the late 1920s. As you might expect, the book is peopled with writers: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sherwood Anderson, Sylvia Beach, Ezra Pound, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and others, all deftly and brilliantly brought to life under McClain’s pen.
Hadley is an emotionally wounded and directionless 28-year-old when she meets the much younger, attractive, and ambitious Hemingway at a party. The two begin an intense courtship, against the advice of well-meaning friends, and ultimately marry. After a short impoverished stint with Ernest working as a journalist in Chicago, they risk everything and move to Paris, where they’ve been told by Anderson the writing world is “happening.” Something about Ernest brings out another side of Hadley, one less cautious and reserved, one more willing to take the chances necessary to live and experience life rather than to simply exist as an observer on the fringes. Hadley brings out Ernest’s vulnerable side. He feels safe with her and empowered to be the writer he knows he can be. The two enter Paris unprepared for the challenges and temptations that await them, eventually forcing them to make the most important, difficult, and painful decision of their lives.
The theme of choice is prominent throughout the novel. From the beginning, it is clear that Hadley chooses Ernest and everything about him and the life they will lead. She makes this choice again and again, resolutely, throughout the novel even as circumstances and personalities change. Love isn’t portrayed here as something neat and tidy. Hadley and Ernest’s romance is messy and painful, but attractive and sustaining, as well. It is clear that one of the traits Hadley best exhibits as a wife is her understanding that for marriage to survive, each spouse must at some time or another, or even very often, CHOOSE to continue on in the relationship, choose to continue to try and make things work, choose to love. Unfortunately, sometimes one or the other spouse is incapable or unwilling to make the choice. Hadley is not blind. She makes her choice with her eyes open, albeit often unable to see clearly what is around the next bend. She has a maturity and a wisdom that few others in their world possess and it is this that sets the Hemingways apart from their social-literary set, both in Paris and around Europe. It is clear that Hadley’s choice to continue on with Ernest hurts her. But she persists in hope, confident that whatever else happens between them, she truly loves him. It is this aspect of her character that I admired the most, especially as I approach the 20-year anniversary in two weeks of my own marriage. Hadley has the stick-to-itiveness that marriage needs if it is going to survive, and in our own current climate, when so many marriages fail to make it even to the three-year mark, her example is one to be emulated.
Hadley’s clarity of intention is much of what keeps the novel moving forward. By all accounts, Hemingway was not an easy man to be married to. He seems to see his wife of the moment, and the wives subsequent, as necessary muses. They function as support for his ego when he can’t muster the will to do it on his own. And yet these strong women, Hadley being the first among four, for some reason subsume their own deeply creative aspirations and talents in order to nurture Ernest’s gifts. Hadley is an exceptional pianist, and yet she sets her passion aside and even doubts her own talent, becoming more deeply embroiled in the literate swirl of the Parisian expat set, committing herself instead to supporting and nurturing Ernest. The obvious problem here is that, over time, a woman in this scenario becomes half a self — regardless of how much she is living the rest of her life to the fullest, the denial of her creative spirit and unique gifts has profound psychological ramifications. Hadley clearly struggles with this unhealthy tension throughout the book and it is unfortunate that Ernest sees the truth of her as a whole person so dimly that he fails to support her efforts until it is too late.
It would have been easy for Hadley to become spiteful and vindictive with all she has to put up with. Her dogged persistence continues even when her consistent effort might be the thing that is really doing herself the most harm. One of the things the wife in this novel has to learn is that love cannot be forced or manipulated. An interesting lesson for a woman who seems to be fully cognizant of the truth that love is a choice.
It is clear that McClain’s intention in allowing Hadley to tell the story from her perspective is to give the reader a glimpse into a little explored room in Hemingway’s faceted life. Hadley “knew him when” – before he achieved the canonical status he would later command. And yet, Hadley never figured in his work. It is as though she moves through the back rooms of their life together as a grey ghost: silent, clearly present, but unacknowledged. And yet, were it not for her strength and her resilient belief in Ernest, he might never have become the writer he eventually became. The tension caused by his unwilling realization of this fact drives his choices. It is as if he both knows and refuses to accept his reliance on Hadley and makes choices that will deliberately liberate him from his reliance and thus give him the illusion of competent solitary self-reliance. This is hard to read about, because it is so incredibly self-destructive and so damaging to Hadley. Yet she emerges, in my opinion, as the stronger of the two. Perhaps this is because she never veers from the truth and she can look back and say that she has no regrets, that she did all she could. Her conscience is clear and she ultimately achieves a wholeness Ernest is not capable of.
McClain allows Hadley’s story to be told from her perspective, with an honesty and candor that is particularly touching and very refreshing after American Wife, last month’s Literary Wives choice. Hadley doesn’t try to hide her flaws or Ernest’s. She simply tells the story. I never felt the need to question her reliability. Neither did I question her repetitive choice to stay and love and work the marriage through its ups and downs. Her experience of being a wife in the novel was an experience I could relate to on many levels. When she married, she committed her life to Ernest and she made sure she did what she could to honor and live up to that commitment, even when it was excruciatingly painful.
Ernest did finally, at the end of his life, write about his time with Hadley in Paris and it was this book, A Moveable Feast, which inspired McClain to find out more about the woman who had been so clearly dear to the great writer. The Paris Wife is McClain’s way of trying to give voice and substance to this wife who stood by her man to the end. Hadley clearly believed the risk of loving Hemingway was something she could not live without and she was a better, more whole person for loving him. This comes through so beautifully in the novel and reminds us that love exacts a price from us. In order to love truly, we must agree to submit ourselves to the crucible and to be changed by the experience. Love can hurt, love can devastate. It can also elevate and raise one to sublime heights. But it always changes one, and that is the true risk. Hadley chooses to take this risk not once but many times and seems to come to the conclusion that if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn’t hesitate to choose the same.
Do whatever you have to do to get this book on your nightstand or into your beach tote. It’s romantic, dreamy, and brilliantly told. Plus, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to travel back in time to jazz-age Paris, even if it is only via the arm (or beach) chair?
If you’ve already read The Paris Wife, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book. Also, don’t forget to stop by The Bookshelf of Emily J., One Little Library, and Unabridged Chick to see what my Literary Wives co-hosts thought of this month’s pick. Our next title is A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. Are you in?
Here are a few tunes that, for me, recall themes and moods of The Paris Wife. Enjoy!
“Jai un message pour toi,” by Josephine Baker, because it sounds like the cafe beneath Hadley and Ernest’s Paris apartment.
“Azure-te,” by Nat King Cole, because Hadley surely has the Paris blues at the outset of the Hemingway’s journey, and then on and off throughout the novel, for all of the reasons he sings about.
“C’est Magnifique,” by Lucienne Delyle, because being in love in Paris can be spectacular, but it can also be painful.
“J’ai deux amour,” by Madeleine Peyroux, because…well…..Hadley is the Paris wife.
“La Vie en Rose,” by Edith Piaf, because it is the essence of Paris.