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.