I’ve never been a big fan of Ernest Hemingway the author. All that swagger is bad enough, but I’m not even a fan of the prose. I have this notion that, just as there are cat people and dog people, there are Fitzgerald people and Hemingway people. If you like that cut-to-the-bone style, then the latter’s the man, but if you like things a little more decorative, then it’s the blue light on the end of the pier that will beckon.
So I couldn’t be fair about Hemingway as a character, right from the start. It’s a testament to Paula McLain that I read The Paris Wife in a couple of sittings and that, having finished it, find it hard to shake. The poignant quality almost overwhelms the annoyances, not the least of which is Papa himself. For instance, his verdict on an acquaintance: “‘I do like Greg, but he doesn’t box and he doesn’t know anything about horse racing. I’ve also never seen him drunk.'” Well, there you go, what use could Greg be? Or his approval of narrator Hadley when she enjoys her first bullfight: “‘You weren’t brought up to know how to watch something like this. I guessed you’d go weak. I’m sorry, but I did.'” McLain isn’t easy on Hemingway, showing us how he could be vindictive, rude, arrogant, competitive. But she also peels away the brashness to expose the demons that made him that way.
Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife of four, narrates and you know from the start their marriage is doomed. What McLain does really well is create a woman whose poor choices make sense to her. Hadley, 28, meets Hemingway as a handsome 21-year old, crackling with charisma and ambition. In the earliest scenes, he does a lot of talking and she does a lot of listening, a dynamic that didn’t change much in their five years of marriage. McLain resists the temptation to make this a feminist fable, keeping the focus close on the couple and their impossible emotional equation.
Of course along the way we get … Paris. Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the cafés in Montparnasse. We get Pamplona and Austria, skiing before ski lifts, and the South of France with Gerald and Sara Murphy. Absinthe. Chanel (whom Hadley does not wear: the Hemingways are dirt-poor). The Closerie des Lilas. McLain moves through the arc of Hadley and Ernest’s relationship at a fairly even pace, plucking out telling scenes, building the tension, exposing Ernest’s weaknesses as well as his gifts. I did find that the style grated on me. McLain seems to be reaching for a neo-Hemingway rhythm in places: “‘I love you,’ I said, and kissed his hands and his eyelids and tried to forget what he’d said. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t forget anything he’d ever said to me. That’s how it was.”
A moment of pedantry: the cover is gorgeous, no question, but the woman’s clothes are from the 1950s while the novel is set in the 20s. Strange choice.