Friday, August 19, 2011

The Paris Wife

The Paris WifeThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I knew very little of the premise of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife when I started reading it. I thought it was just about the writers and artists living in Paris in the 1920s. Not quite a “Midnight in Paris” storyline in book form, but I thought it was more of a nostalgia piece. Probably should have read the book jacket – and yet, would I have read on so voluntarily? Don’t get me wrong, stories of failed marriages and disappointed dreams make for great literature (can we say Gatsby?), but McLain’s novel is not a work of pure fiction.

The Paris Wife is based heavily on the lives Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. So almost against my will I fell in love with their love and felt Hadley’s starry-eyed excitement over the tempestuous, young writer who was destined to become one of America’s most distinct voices. But I knew from the beginning that Ernie had fallen in love with a beautiful nurse during World War I, that she had broken his heart, and that as the boy had grown into a man, he turned to drinking in failed attempts to mend what had been broken. Hadley came next, and it was she who was there as Ernest went from being merely in the shadows of Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald and the other brilliant writers who made Paris their home in the 1920s to being a reputable and sought-after writer. Everyone in Hadley and Ernest’s circle drank too much, wanted too much, and in the end, had to run from the scene or be drowned in it.

McLain’s portrayal of Hemingway is uncanny. His voice that we have come to know in writing rings so clear that it adds an air of reality to what might have felt just like another overly-romanticized piece of historical fiction. And so while I knew from the beginning that Hadley was destined to be the first of four wives, I was drawn in to the carefully crafted details, to the authenticity of the characters, and to the hope that as Ernest said, “No one you ever love is truly lost.”

I can’t say you should read this book. While it’s well-written and gives fantastic insights into some of the greatest creative minds of the last century, it is a book without a happy ending. And it’s a book full of details that someone uninterested in English literature or history might find tiresome. I, as you well know, am a lover of both and am also so in love with Paris that I just couldn’t help but read on and try to find the fleeting truth that Hemingway was so desperate to find.

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