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The Lost Generation Revisited

March 28, 2011

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Summary:  Welcome to the romantic world of 1920s Paris—filled with artists, flappers and ‘The Lost Generation’. And who is our host? The un-glamorous , old-fashioned, yet steadfast Hadley Richardson Hemingway—first wife of the infamous bigger-than-life writer, Ernest Hemingway. And that’s just the first of many paradoxes to come.

Although McLain covers some of the same territory as The Movable Feast and to a lesser degree, The Sun Also Rises, this fictional account allows the author to show us some of the couple’s interior lives. Heavily researched, including the author’s digestion of thousands of their love letters, this account takes us from their whirl-wind courtship, to their flight to Paris as newlyweds, and their humble-beginnings in a small flat as they meet the literary royalty who held court in their salons—and we get to be the fly on the wall. We jet-set along with them not just from Chicago to Paris, but also to the bull-fights of Spain, and the ski-resorts of Austria. And since most of you already know “Hem” had three other wives after Hadley, it won’t be a spoiler if I tell you it ends with Hadley marrying Paul Mowrer—to whom she remained happily married until his death in 1971.

Writing Style: “Papa” would be proud of the clean, direct prose the author employs to tell the story of his early days. However, her background in poetry is evident in her delicate choice of words. The most remarkable aspect of the book, is how the author was able to withhold judgment and just tell the story—or have Hadley do so. And all the while Ernest is making choices that make the reader cringe, the writer somehow is able to separate the man from the poor choices, in a way that treats this deeply flawed character in a sympathetic way.

She shows this tender understanding—and almost forgiveness—toward “Hem” in  one of my favorite passages: “We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was. We invented it after all. We made it with our longing and cigarettes and Rhum St. James; we made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn’t ours. Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again.

There are some who said I should have fought harder or longer than I did for my marriage, but in the end fighting for a love that was already gone felt like trying to live in the ruins of a lost city. I couldn’t bear it, and so I backed away—and the reason I could do it at all, the reason I was strong enough and had the legs and the heart to do it, was because Ernest had come along and changed me. He helped me see what I really was and what I could do. Now that I knew what I could bear, I would have to bear losing him.”

Characters: The author demonstrates this same even-handedness in both of her main characters. Although, these young newlyweds are certainly a study in opposites attracting. Ernest is as exuberant, sophisticated, and young as Hadley is quiet, un-worldly, and almost passed her marriageable shelf-life for that era. Hadley is as selfless, loyal and sturdy as Ernest is narcissistic, deceitful (to his wife, his friends, and unfortunately even to himself) and moody. It would be simple in the hands of another writer to assume that your family dog had more personality than Hadley—or that Ernest was simply a bi-polar egotist with a bad medical plan. However, in McLain’s hands, we find Hadley charmingly conventional and consistent—the kind of person you would want on your side; while we see Ernest as a smart man who makes stupid choices. Over and over again. But we never abandon him—instead we just  keep rooting for him to make better choices the next time.

Who else is invited to this wild and crazy Parisian party? How about Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (was she really crazy or just eccentric?) and James Joyce—just for a bit of name-dropping. This supporting cast isn’t just famous—many are carefully drawn even if we are not as sympathetic to their plight. And, of course, there’ s finally the femme fatale—who we love to hate—and who betrays Hadley and steals her husband—but then, you knew that was coming…

Themes: Of course, McLain threads many themes throughout her tale: Childhood Trauma, Marriage and Relationships, Loss and Forgiveness, Search for Identity, Ambition and Desires, Living Abroad, and the Consequences of Fame.

Why Book Clubs will Love it: It’s Paris in the 20’s—need I say more? Probably not, but you know I will, anyway. In addition to the themes listed above,  the most discussable aspect of this story, is all of the relationships: Hadley and Ernest to their parents and siblings while growing up, to their friends in Chicago, to their new-found friends in Paris, to their son, Bumby, to the city of Paris, and of course, to each other. So be sure to bring an extra bottle of wine to book club that night—the discussion is gonna go late.

Random Rants: If the book is about 1920’s Paris—why do we find a 50’s housewife (Ok-40’s at the earliest) on the cover? Is this the only photograph Ballantine could find? Where is the joie de vivre of 1920’s Paris? This dust jacket disconnect is similar to the last book I reviewed, The Four Ms. Bradwells whose cover is adorned with a beautiful double strand of ivory pearls—it’s absolutely beautiful. Too bad the infamous pearls from the book were black pearls! Don’t the graphic artists responsible for the cover ever talk to someone who’s actually read the book anymore?

Pick it up—it’s a compelling read your whole club will enjoy!




The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

Ballantine Books

Historical Fiction

ISBN: 9780345521309

Author interview:

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