The Paris Wife: Portrait of a Not-Yet Artist

The Paris Wife (2011)
Paula McLain
Random House 9780345521316
* * * ½

Few novelists of the 20th century achieved the bigger-than-life reputation of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). There was, of course, a time in which Hemingway wasn’t Hemingway–just another guy dreaming of becoming a writer. Paula McLain takes us back to the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, that transitional period in which young men like Hemingway were trying to heal physical and psychological wounds suffered in World War One and suspected that part of the healing process involved society casting off dead cultural tissue. McLain shows the making of Ernest Hemingway through the eyes of his first wife, Elizabeth “Hadley” Richardson.

We first meet Hadley and Ernest in Chicago, in 1920, where Hadley is visiting a former Bryn Mawr roommate. McLain’s young Hemingway is a man of ambition, but he’s also plagued by self-doubt and Hadley, eight years his senior and an accomplished pianist, is just the ego booster he needs. They marry in 1921 and soon relocate to Paris, because–hard though it may be to believe–one could live cheaply there. Thus, Paris became a Mecca for other up-and-coming writers as well, and was the perfect base from which hand-to-mouth young folks could borrow some money and explore the Continent. This is precisely what the Hemingways do, and it’s how Ernest gains his first fascination with Spanish bullfighting.

The Paris Wife reads like a non-stop party through the 1920s, with all of its excitement, promise, and amorality. We meet Sara and Gerald Murphy, who are fabulously rich and vacuous. They’re perfectly willing to bankroll their abusive artistic friends as long as the booze flows and the music never ends. We also meet Hemingway’s first muse, Gertrude Stein, and see within that friendship the seeds of Hemingway’s bombast and outbursts of misogyny. Along the way we meet other soon-to-be literary lions still in their cub phases: James Joyce, Erza Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos…. Stein notwithstanding, it’s a decidedly hyper-masculine world. Though Ernest seems genuinely smitten with Hadley, gathering gloom and doom mars their relationship. (Hemingway divorced Hadley in 1927; he would marry three more times.)

McLain’s novel is a fascinating portrait of a not-yet artist though oddly, her female protagonist, Hadley, is underdeveloped. I suppose we are to gather that patriarchy was a form of hubris for Jazz Age scribblers, but it’s often hard to see what, other than sex, these men saw in their companions. Hadley is supposed to be a concert-quality pianist, yet she’s tepid and passive throughout the book–a clueless victim. Journalist Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway’s second wife, comes across as little more than a husband-stealer and, if possible, Zelda Fitzgerald appears crazier than she probably was. One wonders what critics would have said of this book if a man had sketched these characters! Ditto McLain’s propensity to name drop or use clichés to advance thin plot lines.

The Paris Wife isn’t great literature, but it has its fascinations. McLain is much better at description and ambience than at dialogue or character development. The former are so sharply drawn that we can sweep away the blue tobacco haze and clinking booze glasses and mentally conjure old ways giving way to new. The Paris Wife is a breezy, non-taxing read–perfectly suitable for curling up by a winter fire, or saving for a July beach read. –Rob Weir

1 comment:

Susan Boldman said...

I enjoyed this book, but I really liked Everybody Was So Young, about sarah and Gerald Murphy???just a sucker for those 20s stories...right now reading Paris without End, a bio of Hadley....