Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Paris Wife

It’s said that “Behind every great man there’s a great woman”—in Ernest Hemingway’s case, Hadley Richardson was that great woman. Hadley was Hemingway’s first wife; he loved her very much, but somehow his troubled and unstable soul—and perhaps the corrupted age they lived in—torn out their happy marriage. The Paris Wife is a fictional story of their lives, written from Hadley’s side, but Paula McLain told it closely following the historical facts, which made this book very interesting.

Hadley Richardson was twenty eight on October 1920, a plain young woman with a plain and boring life who was still mourning over her mother’s death, when she first met a ‘beautiful boy with brown eyes’ whom introduced himself as Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was then a war veteran, and was starting a literary career by writing for magazines. It’s obvious from the beginning that he had ambition to be a reputable writer. Shortly they fell in love, got married, and lived in a small apartment in Paris.

Living in Paris during the Jazz Age meant paradise for young talented writers or artists, but it’s not suitable for a conservative young woman like Hadley. But Hadley loved Ernest so much, that she dedicated herself to bring her husband’s career to the top. Accompanying Ernest, Hadley tried to mingle with the rising writers at that time, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, etc. Ernest got the safety and stability feeling alongside Hadley, that he could pound his way to what his talent could produce; while Hadley got the man she loved very much—maybe too much. Everything should have got on very well, but then complicated things happened. First a baby appeared, then a woman (Hadley’s best friend) entered their marriage life.

Maybe Kate (Hadley’s friend before she married Ernest) was right from the beginning. Hadley shouldn’t have married Ernest, for “he liked women very much”. But then, marriage was what has saved Hadley’s life at that time, and she loved Ernest so much. To marry a talented and ambitious writer means a sacrifice. For Hadley, it’s okay. She could endure hours and days of loneliness when Ernest retreated into his passionate writings. She could endure Ernest’s changing mood and unstable emotion, including his war trauma. She could also endure the awkwardness being a conservative among the moral lose people of the Lost Generation. She could endure all those, as long as she still had Ernest’s love. So when Pauline Pfeiffer stepped up and seduced Ernest to leave his former wife, everything collapsed. I was so relieved that finally Hadley found a loving husband who led her to a happy normal life.

World War I has created what we now call the Lost Generation, the disoriented and confused young men who survived the war. But without it, we might never have talented writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. For Hemingway’s sharpness and intense writing, for instance, was produced by what he had endured during the war. The war re-shaped his character, along with his mother’s dominance during his adolescence. That’s why he needed Hadley very much, for he found in her the sturdy rock where he could hold on to every time the tempest of the past hit him to swallow him into its rolling waves. So, in a way, we must thank Hadley Richardson for her role in Hemingway’s earlier career, or else, we would never have been amused by The Sun Also Rises (the novel he was writing when they were still married), A Farewell to Arms, and his other famous novels.

Two thumbs up to McLain who has written The Paris Wife so vividly that for two weeks I was like transported to the 1920s Jazz Age of Paris. She wrote as intense as Hemingway’s, and the ending made me feeling wretched for hours after finishing it. I loved the bullfighting scenes at Pamplona; Hemingway’s reaction reminded me of what I loved from The Old Man and the Sea and, vaguely, from To Have and Have Not: the intense and sharp description of a scene.

Five stars for The Paris Wife! It has changed my view towards Hemingway, and now I am eager to read more of his books, including A Moveable Feast, which I have failed when I read it five years ago. Sometimes reading the author’s bio (or semi bio like this historical fiction) helps you understanding and accepting him as he wanted to be.


I read Virago paperback edition

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