The Paris Wife
It must be difficult to be married to an artist. First, there is the screwed up, tortured mind to deal with – no artist worth his or her salt is normal, we all know. Then there is the bohemian lifestyle that seems to be de rigueur. And topping it all is the gargantuan ego warring with crushing self-doubt, both of which need such sensitive handling. Why would anyone subject oneself to a life of such complexity?
Hadley Richardson is a normal girl living her youth in early 20th century America. She is living with her sister and her husband after losing a father to suicide, another sister to an accident and a mother to illness. Hadley is waiting for her life to bloom, waiting for adventure, waiting for the dance to start. She visits some friends in big city Chicago one weekend and meets the man who will change her life – a twenty year old Ernest Hemingway, tall, handsome, brimming with ambition, charming beyond resistance. “..he seemed to do happiness all the way up and through. There wasn’t any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness.” Ernest and Hadley fall in love. She is nine years older than him, but she is beautiful and real and solid and human and so irrevocably in love with this beautiful, strapping boy, McLain ensures we fall in love with her too.
They marry and set off to Paris on a modest inheritance Hadley has. And then there is glorious Paris, twenties Paris, with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald. It’s poverty-stricken but brilliant with the promise of brilliance emanating out of Ernest. Hadley plays the content wife, encouraging, supportive, the calm foil to a tempestuous Hemingway. There is the fishing and the bull fighting, there is skiing in the Alps and a short-lived Canadian experience. But Hadley’s contentment always has a shadow –“He was a light-footed lad on a Grecian urn chasing truth and beauty. Where did I fit in exactly?” And then, somewhere along the way, Hadley does the unthinkable. She loses all of Hemingway’s manuscripts on a train journey. All of them. Forcing a struggling artist to start over. He perhaps never truly forgives her. The loss of something there between them is compounded by the baby. Which Hadley so desperately wants and Hemingway is ambivalent about. The end begins to begin.
Paula McLain follows Ernest Hemingway’s life with Hadley pretty faithfully, like in a well-researched biography. There are enough sources. Hemingway’s memoirs of his life in Paris, letters between Hadley and Ernest, other biographies of the brilliant personages of the age. But McClain writes this as a work of fiction, from the point of view of Hadley herself, in first person. It imbues the work with a sensitivity and feeling that touches me quite inexplicably.
Hadley is the outsider in a creatively brilliant milieu. She is forced to be the appendage to sparkling genius, but we know she is worth more than that in purely human terms. And because she is more, she needs to move out. She cannot be the groupie in a world where “As long as you were making something good or interesting or sensational, you could have as many lovers as you wanted and ruin them all. What was really unacceptable were bourgeois values, wanting something small and staid and predictable, like one true love, or a child.” Family life clearly could not last in bohemian Paris. Hemingway finds love again in another woman, Pauline. And in the fine tradition of Pound, tries to get Hadley to stay in the marriage in a free-love-type open marriage. But Hadley as we know is no groupie, no clinging vine. She tries hard, but opts out in the end.
What McLain manages to do so beautifully is make us feel deeply for Hadley yet never at any point make us feel revulsion for the genius artist. Hemingway is the way he is but the excuse is always the brilliance of the work and his passion for it. There is a scene Hadley describes where Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway are hard at work, re-working some scenes in Hemingway’s novel. “Behind me, the men had bowed their heads again and were back at work, talking it through meticulously because it was heart surgery and they were the surgeons, and it was as important as anything they’d ever done. Scott could be a terrible, painful drunk. Ernest could shove cruelly against everyone who’d ever helped him up and loved him well – but none of that mattered when the patient was at hand. In the end, for both of them, there was really only the body on the table and the work, the work, the work.”
So Hadley is the Paris wife, the early one, the one who had Ernest before he became famous, before his three other wives, a footnote in a mammoth giant life. But she knew and Hemingway knew and the people who knew them knew she was the real thing. She had the best of him, at a time when “Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.”
Hemingway finally shoots himself, the way his father killed himself, the way his brother did, the way Hadley’s father did. Hadley goes on to have a long happy second marriage. There is some justice in the world, we’d like to think. The truth, McLain would have us believe is more complex.
It is a tale simply told. But told well. I liked it.