Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Paris Wife

Once again a debut novelist has knocked it out of the ball park! Paula McLain's novelized story of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley is an amazingly realistic look at a young marriage facing enormous strains and slowly, inexorably, unraveling in front of our eyes. For anyone who's been in a doomed relationship this book will be hard going unless, as for me, there's plenty of distance. Maturity and years add perspective but the pain for Ernest and Hadley is raw, a compliment to the author.

Naturally this novel will be compared to Nancy Horan's Loving Frank. As a matter of fact, she is blurbed on the cover. I led a book discussion on Horan's novel but found this one to be much finer in the subtlety of the writing, the introspection of the characters, and the feeling of authenticity. It may begin a bit slower but it draws you in.

I have always been fascinated by the over the top, legendary quality of the mystique around Ernest Hemingway. I had read most of his work as a young woman and some biographical works as well, so I was already very familiar with his penchant for serial marriages, his extreme bouts of depression, the heavy drinking, hard living reputation. I thought he was a pretty childish, disagreeable man. In fact, he sounded an awful lot like my ex-husband!

To Ms. McClain's credit, she paints him in a much more sympathetic light without excusing or paintbrushing his foibles. What I didn't remember is that he was only 21 years old, emotionally devastated by what he had seen and the injuries he had suffered in the war. Hadley was a twenty nine year old small town girl who was beginning to think her life was passing her by. Anxious for a new adventure, a rebel of sorts, she believed in Hemingway's talents, supported him financially and psychologically, and loved him unconditionally.

Paula McClain sets readers smack dab in the middle of 1920's Paris and the rich but decadent lives of the artists, writers, and hangers on who lived and partied there. It would be a miracle if any of the children of these unions came out unscathed! Our behavior today seems nearly puritanical compared with the antics Scott Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. If you haven't seen the wonderfully quiet Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, it provides a perfect companion piece to The Paris Wife.

There have been many artists whose reputations for over-the-top ego have been part and parcel of their reputations for literary output. So much has been written about them that another non-fiction book may have been redundant. But in a novel the author has more room to play, to surmise, to intuit and yes, to invent. Ms. McClain's invention is surreal in its authenticity.

Oh, just got a bizarre new book from Library Journal that I'll have to get into this weekend so I may be incommunicado for a week. Don't give up on me!

1 comment:

TooManyBooks said...

I knew you'd like it!