28 August 2015
From the opening lines of Paula McLain's THE PARIS WIFE, it is obvious that this author really knows how to turn a phrase. The prose is nimble and witty even when it is also full of pathos. The tone of the narrative is a conversational first-person one with a smattering of American epithets that makes it easy to hear this woman's voice. The narrative voice is very nineteen-twenties, using the vernacular to create a palpable "lost generation" atmosphere. This adds to the authentic, almost autobiographical feel of the book. The quality of the writing is at its very best at the beginning and end of the book, with the middle being a little more plain-spoken. But when it's good, it's very, very good. It certainly had me from the very first line: "Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris."
It feels slightly surreal to be reading a book about a woman called Hadley and a man called Ernest - never quite being able to forget that "Ernest" is Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite authors. It takes some getting used to, kid. Hadley's first-person voice is so authoritative and convincing that it is often difficult to remember that this is historical fiction, not autobiography. Which also begs the question, how much is fact and how much is fiction? I've read a lot of historical fiction but seldom asked this question so constantly throughout a book. This, from Ernest, certainly rings true: "'I want to write one true sentence,' he said. 'If I can write one sentence, simple and true every day, I'll be satisfied.'"
Hadley is a very realistic character, full of anxieties and dark moods as well as the eagerness and excitement of the newlywed. She is strong and fragile, tough and vulnerable all at once - in short, as full of contradictions as is any human being. However, while she is a very sympathetic character, something bothered me about her and it took me some time to figure out what it was: She is very "domesticated," which I suppose was typical of the times, but she also lacks, to a large degree, her own identity apart from Ernest.
Thus, I found Ernest to be the more interesting character - volatile, but not excessively so for a great writer; enigmatic but also often practical and straightforward; tenacious and determined; sometimes abrasive and always passionate. Hadley certainly does see and understand the real Ernest: "Ernest Hemingway ... 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. His eyes sparked all over everything ..." As their relationship develops, she sees deeper and deeper into him: "... Some of us had looked into the faces of the dead and tried not to remember anything in particular. Ernest was one of these. He often said he'd died in the war, just for a moment; that his soul had left his body like a silk handkerchief, slipping out and levitating over his chest. It had returned without being called back, and I often wondered if writing for him was a way of knowing his soul was there after all, back in its place. Of saying to himself, if not to anyone else, that he had seen what he'd seen and felt those terrible things and lived anyway. That he had died but wasn't dead any more." Hadley is the one who sees Ernest at his best and worst and everything in between: "He loved and needed praise. He loved and needed to be loved, and even adored ... Ernest did run the show and ran me over more than occasionally, and that wasn't by chance ... He was such an enigma, really - fine and strong and weak and cruel. An incomparable friend and a son of a bitch. In the end, there wasn't one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true."
In contrast, Hadley could often seem tentative and plaintive and overly solicitous of her husband's approval and affection. She is quite aware that she lacks purpose, and embarks on various "projects" to try to find it - from playing the piano to having a baby: "He was inside the creative sphere and I was outside, and I didn't know if anything would ever change that."
A major theme of the book is the legacy of the suffragette movement in the form of the "modern woman." Surrounded by endless examples of these comparatively liberated women in Paris and in Ernest's orbit in general, Hadley spends much of the book trying to find this fierce and fearless quality in herself, almost ashamed to admit that more traditional values and lifestyles appeal to her more. Can an ordinary and unambitious wife hope to hold onto one of the greatest, most innovative and progressive writers of the "lost generation"? Hadley knows well how seemingly impossible this task is: "Marriage could be such deadly terrain. In Paris, you couldn't really turn around without seeing the result of lovers' bad decisions. An artist given to sexual excess was almost a cliche, but no one seemed to mind. 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."
The denouement of this novel could hardly be more perfect. It is messy and complex and moving, but not melodramatic or overly sentimental or trite. It is utterly authentic, utterly real, utterly true. It is just the way life is, in all its imperfect grace and all its terrible beauty. It is the very thing to reflect and amplify the elegant verisimilitude of THE PARIS WIFE as a whole.