Dreams, Illusion, Reality – The Paris Wife

Reading Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’ I rapturously turned the pages, captivated in a cathartic way in the character of Hadley Richardson, whose story and perceptions I became absorbed with, whose life and relationships I was invested in as a reader and also as someone who has lived in France for six years. Yet at the end I am left feeling somewhat deceived.

‘The Paris Wife’ explores a brief passage in the life of 28 year old Hadley Richardson, from shortly after the death of her mother, when she meets and after a brief courtship, marries the much younger Ernest Hemingway, until their separation and subsequent divorce. Hemingway is a 21 year old war veteran and struggling journalist with his eyes set on Rome, until the writer Sherwood Anderson, convinces them the future lies in Paris.

The young couple embark on their journey, Hadley doing her best to support her husband and not burden him with her own insecurities. Neither glamorous nor ambitious, she is honest and good and able to provide Hemingway with an emotional foundation and stability that he has not been able to garner since his return from war, or perhaps earlier, when the arrival of a baby brother shattered the illusion of a special bond he believed he had with his mother. It is a pattern that will be repeated in his life, the attempt to recreate a safe, protective feeling akin to childhood with a woman, only for it to fall apart.

It is not long before cracks appear, Hemingway’s foreign assignment to Turkey bring back feelings of despair, displacement and the nightmares of war; walking in the rain, death, sickness and desperation in the air, his esteem low, he brings himself lower by acting on it. We learn this period was preceded by his breaking the ‘exclusive’ work contract with his employers without informing them – signs of a divide within himself – and Hadley’s discomfort with his dishonesty feeds the more paranoid of her instincts.

While in Paris, Hemingway spends his days writing, initially rejecting the cafés with their posing artists, though soon overcomes his distaste and discovers the joy of café life once they develop their own circle of friends. Hemingway’s obsession with corrida (bullfighting) result in numerous visits to Spain accompanied by friends and these sojourns become the basis of his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ about a group of expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of Fermin in Pamplona.

One of the most striking and memorable moments supports a comment by Hemingway scholar Jamie Barlowe that Hadley Richardson “was a ‘true’ woman and not a ‘new’ woman of the early 19th century” and shows both how removed she was from their group and the reverence Hemingway held for her. Hemingway dedicates ‘The Sun Also Rises’ to Hadley and although she was there in person and recognises much of what happens in the novel, she is the one person from their circle that does not exist between its pages. She is hurt by the exclusion, though spared the humiliation. She was at a loss in the company of Lady Duff, whom Hemingway models the female character on, a honey pot of a woman who, oblivious to the neurotic attentions of the men, was present with a much ignored fiancé and drooled over by Hemingway and Harold who end up in fisticuffs over misplaced jealousies. Hadley’s recognition and special moment come in the most romantic and gory of gestures, when the much admired matador Cayetano Ordóñez makes eye contact with her from the bullring and publicly gifts her the rare token of the bull’s ear, bloody and warm from the soon to be sacrificed animal.

The deception is that the story and the author’s interest continue only as long as she is married to Hemingway, a mere six years, effectively cancelling her out as a character so soon, no longer interesting without the crutch of an infamous husband. Did her life cease to hold interest or meaning beyond those years; are we really only interested in her because she was married to Ernest Hemingway? Sadly it appears so, deceived because it is true, we are to be concerned with her only for the duration of her marriage to Hemingway, despite having come to know her sufficiently to want to know more. She has become a victim of the modern cult of the celebrity, famous only for being linked with someone famous.

I think back to another wife of a famous man I reviewed recently ‘The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine Bonaparte‘. Josephine starts out as a modest character named Rose Tacher whom we are introduced to many years and one marriage before she meets Napoléon Bonaparte; we are fortunate that interest in her isn’t restricted to her marriage to Bonaparte, we are already hooked into her character and have completed an entire novel before Bonaparte even enters the scene.

Despite the deception, I recommend ‘The Paris Wife’ as an alternative, behind the scenes look at the 1920’s lives of the group Gertrude Stein called ‘the lost generation’ and also at the inspiration and experiences that influenced much of Ernest Hemingway’s work penned during this era. But perhaps most of all because McLain introduces us to a woman we can relate to and empathise with, someone we can imagine as a friend or confidante, who aspires to the same things that so many women yearn for, because she allows us to imagine and feel what it must have been like to harbour such simple and honest ambitions while navigating a fresh marriage in a new city and foreign country and culture.

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport – exploring the mystery of a mother’s suicide #memoir

In 1963, Nancy Rappaport was 4 years old and the youngest of six children when her mother, an ambitious woman who balanced raising a large family, organising regular society events and political campaigning, committed suicide in the wake of a heart-wrenching custody battle.

Nancy now has three grown children of her own and has written this book both as a daughter needing to find answers and as a professional child psychiatrist, bringing together her education, experience, the wisdom of years and a compassionate perspective to narrate this compelling memoir of an extraordinary life whose end was sad and tragic.

From a childhood in which the nurturing love of a mother was ruptured so abruptly, through adolescence and early adulthood where the subject of her mother appears to have been taboo, it is extraordinary and something of a blessed gift that Nancy comes across a trunk of belongings that has virtually been in hiding or at best forgotten all these years. It is a credit to her father and stepmother that it wasn’t destroyed and so Nancy in her quest to know her mother better, gains access to lists, notes, notebooks, a journal and astonishingly, the manuscript of a complete novel. At last, she begins to gain a first-hand insight into who her mother really was, aside from all that had been written publicly and most importantly she begins to piece together how her mother was thinking in the time leading up to her death.

Rappaport follows leads like a master sleuth hesitating to question herself only briefly in pursuing her mother’s former lover, an estranged best friend and a former confidante of her grandmother, to unearth as much information surrounding the events of that period during her parents’ marriage and subsequent divorce. Little by little, she draws back the carefully drawn veil of secrecy, though not entirely without getting her fingers burnt.

It’s tempting to search for the villain and it could be said that each of the main characters in this true story are tried out and tested in that role, but none endure. Such is the faculty of being human, perhaps we all have the potential if pushed sufficiently but here we find few heroes or villains, just victims, bystanders and those trying to do their best under the circumstances.

It is a bold move to publish a family story when so many are touched by past events and family ties remain tenuous. Nancy suffers the expected consequences to a certain extent though she tries to navigate her way with compassion and empathy as much as she can. It’s a difficult and interesting topic, to write a version of the truth that recalls the faded memories of real life characters, while respecting those who wish to remain silent.

In my reading of this courageous memoir, some of the lessons come not from digging in the past or even from the professional perspective, but from Nancy’s own children, who are a constant reminder of the present that we live in and the role and responsibility of a mother to her children, doing her best, learning as she goes, loving them above all so that they have the best chance to be loving, caring and successful people themselves and that no matter what anyone says or does or whatever the circumstances, a mother will maintain that role whether she is fulltime, part time, at a distance or just a faded memory.

Why People Don’t Read Short Stories

Publishers have difficulty persuading readers to buy short story collections.  Many readers love them, but more readers avoid them, preferring the novel.  Why is this?  Fiction writer Tessa Hadley suggests it is because in our culture, readers have grown used to the habit of the novel, we can pick up a novel and put it down time after time, when it opens we re-enter its world, escaping our own for a while.  There’s something discontinuous about our reading relationship with short stories.  At the end of each story we are thrown out of that world created by the chosen words of the author enhanced by our imagination, back into our surroundings without leaving a thread; we then enter another story and begin to build a new picture of characters, place and situations.

Reflecting on this now, I wonder if that is why I liked Alice Hoffman’s ‘Blackbird House’ so much, because of the subtle connection between the stories which kept me wanting to go back for more.  Or was it the writer’s style? I love this book, a unique set of short stories that traces the lives of various occupants of an old Massachusetts house over a span of 200 years, witnessing change in each family through their loved ones and the lives they live inside Blackbird House.

I like reading short stories, especially in between reading novels or other more lengthy works of non-fiction.  There are some short stories in particular that I adore, like the Italian writer Italo Calvino’s ‘The Enchanted Garden’ from his collection of short stories ‘Difficult Loves’.  Giovannino and Serenella discover an opening in a hedge leading them into a quiet garden of flower beds, eucalyptus trees and gravel paths, it’s like a mini version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden, still a favourite today.  And then there’s A.S.Byatt’sStone Woman’ from her ‘Little Black Book of Stories’ the haunting tale of a woman witnessing her own gradual metamorphosis into stone; befriending an Icelandic stone carver she returns to East Iceland, the place that will become her final resting place.

Mini-gateaux, Bechard, Aix en Provence by Maki

For me, an avid reader, short stories are like the contents  of extravagant chocolate boxes or the pick n mix gâteaux at Béchard on the Cours Mirabeau here in Aix en Provence.  When I’m into reading short stories, I don’t just take one collection, I take three or four and then read a story or two from each collection, so I sample more than one writer at a time.

Why do I do this?  Well firstly, because for me short story collections are like ‘1001 Nights’, I don’t want the collections to end, so I slow down the process to savour the stories.  Secondly, I like to sample writers from different countries, so today I might read from Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s collection Stars of the New Curfew’ set in the teeming street of Lagos, or ‘Sandpiper’ Egyptian writer Adhaf Soueif’s collection about women finding themselves in countries other than their own, where language, culture and love create confusion.

The collection I have now remind me that I love to travel through books both to foreign destinations and through the minds of writers from different countries and cultures as well as returning to the familiar vernacular of my country of birth.

In addition to those mentioned I might dip into Elliot Perlman’s (Australian) ‘the reasons I won’t be coming’, Alice Munro’s (Canadian) ‘Friend of my Youth’; Janet Frame’s ‘The Lagoon’, Keri Hulme’s ‘Stonefishand ‘The Stories of Frank Sargeson’ (New Zealand writers), Indian writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘Arranged Marriage’ and Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ or Raymond Carver’s ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ which reminds me I want to read the Japanese writer Haruki Murikami’s ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’. Then there are the slim classics Dubliners’ by James Joyce who needs no introduction and Grace Paley’s ‘The Little Disturbances of Man’.  And I’m happy to say, I’ve almost managed not to finish any of them – except Hoffmann’s ‘Blackbird House’ which reviewers describe as “not quite a novel and not quite a short story collection’ so I guess that one doesn’t count.  And I plan to read it again anyway.

In this time pressed world, one would think that short story collections are poised for a revival; after all, what better antidote for the tired, overworked individual who remembers nostalgically the enjoyment they used to get from a good book – short stories are perfect!

As writer Jonathan Falla said “Good stories are not literary fast food, made on the cheap; they are intense with a flavour that expands to fill the mind.”  The short story allows us in a short space of time to understand and consider momentous things, grand dilemmas.  Short stories pull us into their world and shake us up.

Do you read short stories?  What’s your favourite collection?



Liebster Award

During our ‘dizaine de jour’ (12 day) hospital stay, my blog was nominated for a Liebster award by the inspirational Candyce who quit her job to Return To Writing and very kindly wrote a few kind words relating to my book blogging meanderings. Thank you Candyce.

So what is a Liebster? Both a word (German for dearest or beloved) and an honour, it is bestowed by those in the early stages of writing a blog (less than 200 followers) upon 3-5 bloggers they admire.

When nominated we should:

1. Link back to the blogger who awarded us.

2. Tag 3-5 blogs to receive the award.

3. Inform them of their nomination.

4. Display the Liebster Award image on our blog.

Recently I joined the SheWrites community of writers and since then I have had many thoughtful visitors to my blog who continue to leave kind and encouraging comments. So thank you also to all the SheWrite sisters out there, it’s wonderful to be part of the group.

I am enjoying journeying through blogsville connecting with wonderful, inspiring people, admiring the diversity of passionate interests and thought provoking musings of this growing community.

So my nominations are:

  1. The Spirit that Moves Me – A beautiful and insightful blog that uncovers and shares the sacred through creativity and the feminine. In a recent post called ‘Finding home’ she writes “Home is not a cottage, a house, or the city in which I live. It is the moment when I am fully present and fully alive. It is when I am aware of myself and the love that surrounds me, of where I come from and who I am.” I feel right at home with this spirit and happy to be following.
  2.  Speaking of Words and Quilts – Amy has started her blog to record and reflect her writing journey and often uses metaphors relating to her quilt making as well as the magnificent landscape that surrounds her. I’m no quilter, but I love her honest style and the way she finds insightful teachings through her scraps of fabric, even that beautiful, ugly quilt she’s not yet ready to show us.
  3.  Mishfit – Mish is a writer, a Mum and an inspiration to many women in Melbourne, Australia, where she runs a fitness and personal training service for Mums. She is the most knowledgeable person I know regarding female incontinence and can quote scary statistics that will make you take note even if you think that’s not me; most of all she empowers women to get in shape while making the children part of it, – yes, babies have supervised fun too!
  4. Wouldn’t that rip the fork out of your nightie?? – Aria writes from the heart, embracing all of the many aspects of her persona, she is inspirational, intuitive, funny, (whacked in her words), insightful, highly creative and prolific – she wakes at 4am and doesn’t sleep till late and is definitely making the most of those hours. Be careful, you could lose hours on this wonderful blog.
  5. Stories Are Good Medicine – Children’s doctor turned author, Sayantani muses on the writing process, yoga and the dharma, reviews interesting books and offers an alternative perspective. Healthy and thought provoking medicine indeed.

Secret Gardens and the Imagination

This week I find myself rereading an old-time classic out loud.  I am being reacquainted with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ as I read it aloud to my 9 year daughter while camping out for 10 days with her in the paediatric ward of the hospital.  My French is being elevated to yet another level as we undertake a rapid apprenticeship in living with Type 1 diabetes, which after a rushed call to the hospital, we discovered was the cause of her giant fatigue and unquenchable thirst.

Both of us seeking an escape, we embark on our journey towards the secret garden with 9 year old Mary Lennox, who finds herself removed from an exotic life in India and living with a rarely seen and allegedly cantankerous Uncle, in a grand old manor on the moors of England after both her parents succumb to cholera.

We are a couple of chapters into the book and my daughter is feeling a little deceived.  “There’s no secret garden” she says, “and what does it mean, gloomy”.  I have to admit that for a story chosen to perk up an ailing child, the first few chapters are somewhat gloomy indeed.

The Secret Garden in the daytime...

At this point my daughter decides to take the matter into her own hands and here you can see her first attempt at creating a secret garden of her own.  The joy and allure of a great book title, it inspires the imagination before we have even arrived at the promised treasure the book beholds.

Young Mary has been both pampered and neglected in her former colonial life so England is something of a shock, where staff speak to her as an equal and expect her to be somewhat independent.  But this newfound freedom will lead her to discover the enchanted garden and to make new friends, not just of the human variety.

Needless to say, this wonderful book is about transformation in many guises, the human spirit, the magic and healing power of gardens, the wonder of birds and animals and the joy that acts of kindness engender.  It worked wonders for us both.

The Secret Garden at night...