Paris Wife tells other side of Hemingway

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 18, 2011

By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY, NC — Will you hate Hemingway after reading “The Paris Wife” ?
Or will you feel sorry for his first wife, Hadley Richardson?
Or will you find the entire novel a travesty of the bigger-than-life true story of the literary giant’s early life?
Author Paula McClain took a big chance with this fictionalized account of Hem and Hadley, and she did a staggering amount of research, aware that fans and scholars would look at this book with a very critical eye.
Her success depends on the reader’s perspective.
At first, letting Hadley narrate seems as if the book will be rather plodding. Hadley is a conventional woman of 28, looking to become unconventional, but still holding on to traditional values.
When she meets Hem at a friend’s house in Chicago, she finds someone who not only lights her fire, but seeks her out persistently. She quickly feels she wants to live through the young, energetic Ernest. He is full of ideas, eager for new experiences, hungry for challenges. Though her friend tries to warn her off, Hadley is infected with Ernest’s persona and marries the 21-year-old.
As surely as they begin, they are destined to fail. Hadley expects too much, and so does Ernest — the problem is, their expectations do not match.
Early in the marriage, Hadley realizes Ernest is not fully hers, not the man she can get lost in. “I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.”
Although Hemingway married four times, he was never domesticated.
His thirst for new experiences often leaves Hadley on the sidelines, living in a cold apartment in a poor part of Paris.
Even when they begin to meet people and make friends, Hadley is gently pushed into the wives’ corner, not to talk about literature, but to talk about their men.
“The Paris Wife” is much about soon-to-be glamorous places, famous names and drunken parties.
The Hemingways travel to Switzerland for skiing, to Spain for bullfights, to Italy to visit friends in their villa.
Their friends include Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and wife Dorothy.
None of them have anything approaching a traditional relationship. Gertrude and Alice are happy as a couple, with Alice serving as wife. Fitzgerald, continously drunk, does not notice how bizarre Zelda has become. Ezra and Dorothy have an open marriage.
Affairs abound as one or another sycophant latches on to someone else.
And then there’s the drinking. Everyone drinks to get drunk — for many in the group this is a daily activity. They spend a lot of time at cafés, downing copious amounts of absinthe, with a nod to the fact it’s illegal.
There are few taboos in this world. While it seems the other glitterati admire the strength and stability of the Hemingways’ marriage, they find it odd, as well.
When Hadley reveals she’s pregnant, Hemingway feels he’s been tricked. After “Bumby” is born, Hadley feels tricked, too. Their lifestyle changes not one whit.
Hemingway is consumed by his work, renting a room to get away from distractions. He often travels with his family, and when he does, he pursues his own obsessions.
When Hadley turns to a new best friend, Pauline, to help her feel less lonely, Pauline falls in love with all of them, Hadley and Hemingway, and moves in.
No polygamy for her as she takes young Bumby and leaves Paris and Hemingway for good.
McClain inserts a few chapters, printed in italic, that are Hemingway’s thoughts — his encounter with a girl in a bar while he’s covering a civil war in Turkey. He does it to make himself feel alive, McClain writes. But Hemingway wants it all — the dark-skinned girl, his wife, the war, the glory.
The name dropping becomes dizzying after a while, and McClain lets Hadley flit among the creative types, then the rich and famous, while Hemingway laps up the attention and summarily breaks ties with his earliest supporters, turning instead to the recklessness of the Roaring 20s.
As much as this is Hadley’s book, she spends most of her time talking about Ernest, who comes across as a big talent with a big appetite and a big ego.
McClain’s Hemingway is too big for this world, her Hadley a casualty of the writer’s many personal wars.
The author hits the high notes — the bullfighting in Spain, the publication of “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway’s poor treatment of his first publisher, his deep fears — all the things that made the man a legend.
Whether this fiction fills a void about Hadley and Ernest is up for debate. Readers have put the book on the bestseller list; some critics have excoriated the work.
The book ends as Hadley learns of Ernest’s suicide — and she reminisces about being “that impossibly lucky girl.”
“The Paris Wife,” by Paula McClain. Ballentine Books. 314 pp. $25.