Monday, July 18, 2011

Elegance and Compassion: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

I am an unabashed Hemingway fan. I have long said I learned more about writing from reading A Moveable Feast than from all the writing books I ever read. So when I heard about The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, I resisted it. I thought it would be another quasi-feminist, macho-bashing, semi-chicklit rip-off. I was wrong. What Paula McLain has accomplished in this beautiful fictionalized version of the Hemingway-in-Paris story is create a beautifully compassionate and lucid portrait of people who were maybe too young and maybe too unprepared for the life they had embarked on as things sped up and fame came hurtling toward them.

Compassion is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and misunderstood words in our language. We live in an era of rampant narcissism when we think everything should be the way WE want it to be and anyone who doesn't conform to our way of thinking is just wrong. One strike and you're out. Over the years I've had a lot of discussions with Hemingway-haters – mostly women but some men, too – who consider him a macho, sexist barbarian who hated women. They judge him by our tepid, politically-correct contemporary era when everybody is supposed to be too evolved for things like bull fights, big game hunting, drinking and carousing, and getting into ill-advised romantic situations. Hemingway did all those things and was darn good at them. Times have changed, the planet is over-crowded and conservation is necessary, but that wasn't how things were at the peak of the Hemingway years. Judging him then by our current values is foolish.

In The Paris Wife Paula McLain has imagined the meeting, courtship and marriage of Hadley Richardson to the young Ernest Hemingway in brilliant detail. Obviously McLain virtually memorized A Moveable Feast and passages from Hemingway’s Death In The AfternoonDeath in the Afternoon and Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas because she had adapted both the conversational style and the clean, precise language that was Hemingway's gift to the world – and, in some sense, Gertrude Stein's as well. But the work is uniquely McLain's.

Hemingway was just 21 when he met Hadley who was eight years his senior. He was fresh from the War and burning with a desire to write. They married and moved to Paris where they thought they could live cheaply and soon became part of a group of artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, etc. that included Picasso, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau and, of course, Gertrude Stein. But, unlike in A Moveable Feast, this time we see the story from the point of view of a young wife who adores her husband but feels a little dowdy, a little awkward, and terribly unfashionable in this brilliant company.

The story, of course, is one I know well, but the perspective is lovely. Hadley loves her husband. She is lovingly aware of his weaknesses and his frailties and, as his fame grows and his weaknesses cause him to make bad choices, she both sees them and struggles with the conflicting feelings of wanting him to be a better man than he is, but loving him in spite of, and sometimes for, his weaknesses. In one particularly heart-breaking passage, Hemingway, after the publishing of his first book, a collection of short stories and poetry, eagerly mails copies to his parents back in the States. They return the books unread with the message that they expected something bigger than this from him. He is devastated and Hadley's heart breaks for him.

I could not help but fall in love with this Ernest Hemingway as much as I loved The Moveable Feast one. And when the inevitable happens, when Hadley's good friend Pauline sets her cap for him and pursues him openly, flagrantly, and flat-out wantonly, I really hated her and hoped that Hadley would give her a much-needed punch in the nose – even though I knew she wouldn't.

I didn't want them to break up even though I knew they would and I was happy when she found a new love and yet still retained compassion and deep love for her “Tatie” up until the final weeks of his life. In the final pages, after Hemingway is dead and Hadley muses that he died the same way her father did and the same way his father and his brother did (and his sister, too) and that perhaps it was in the blood from the beginning, I could not help but love her because she loved him – through everything, for who he was with all his flaws, and all his genius, and his good sense in having loved her in the first place.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I love this post. It has reminded me of why A Moveable Feast is one of my favorite books and why I respect Hemingway's writing. It also made me reappraise the bad rep that has been heaped on Hemingway regarding his emotional character, Thank you.

  2. Ok, you have convinced me to get this one too. It was good to stumble across Hadley in Julia's My Life in France too, and know that she was happy. Didn't Julia mention that they were at Bumby's wedding?

  3. Thanks, Consuelo. Hemingway was an extraordinary man both intellectually and psychologically. He had so much going for him and yet he also had weaknesses that he frankly hated in himself. First of all there was the terrible situation of parents who criticized everything he did and never let him feel good enough. That was compounded by having a remarkable physical presence but weak eye-sight that prevented him from doing a lot of things he longed to do, especially joining the Army. If you read his Death In The Afternoon you can read between the lines everything he wanted to be and everything he hated that he was not.

    Carla, you won't regret it -- it's a terrific book. Julia was actually the matron-of-honor at Bumby's wedding! Didn't you love that book?

  4. There are many things I can't manage to like about Hemingway the person. His much quoted vicious snipe about Stein "going menopausal" shows how nasty he could be at his worst (and this to someone who had given him a huge amount of help). But his good side was there and was undeniable. Anyone who has ever read my own favorite Hemingway work - Hills Like White Elephants - knows there was more to him than a bull-fighting macho man.

  5. Hi, J.R.,

    In the Hemingway/Stein battle I think both of them gave as good as they got. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein gets in some pretty swift kicks but, even more insidious, was the way she used her prestige to undermine him with other writers once they had their falling out. In later years he was kind to her, though she never yielded -- about him or anyone she fell out with (which was almost every one.)

    I've always thought Hills Like white Elephants was one of the saddest stories I ever read and I can't help but think that he identified very strongly with both of those characters. Stein talked about how he came to her, worried and upset, when he found out Hadley was pregnant. He said he felt he was "too young" to be someone's father (he was 23 and had just started publishing). In that story it is obvious both characters just want to please each other (like he and Hadley did in their early years) but that the man secretly wants the abortion and the girl secretly wants to have the baby. I suspect Hemingway knew both sides of that conflict.


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