I was blessed with a fabulous high school English program, where we tackled the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Hesse and Faulkner. I loved it all. Except for Hemingway. The Snows of Kilimanjaro? Too dull. Hills Like White Elephants? Misogynistic. The Old Man and the Sea? I rooted for the sea. God bless Mrs. Dose, Ms. Mormile and good old Dr. Kelley. They did their best. They pointed out the vivid story arcs and the beauty of the spare language. But I never learned to like Hemingway.*
Which is my way of saying that unlike some readers of Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, I was willing to dislike Hemingway the person as much as I had always disliked Hemingway the writer from the get-go. And that may have driven my reading of this book. Where his first wife, Hadley Richardson, saw charm and spontaneity, I saw oiliness and rashness. Where she saw genius, I saw vainglory. Where she saw bravery, I saw bravado. And from the perspective of the novel, I think it worked really well. Right from the beginning, I adored Hadley, and couldn’t see what she saw in the young and callow Ernest anyway. At least for me, McLain was able to conjure a sense of protectiveness about Hadley.
The book is heartbreakingly narrated from Hadley’s perspective, and we watch her slowly awaken to Hemingway’s insatiable nature. On her first trip to Italy, she visits the place where Hemingway fell in love with his nurse, only to be devastated when she rejected his marriage proposal. He says he’s glad they can visit together, but Hadley senses more:
I knew he was telling me the truth, but I also knew that if it were possible, he would have preferred to have me and Agnes both there – his past and his present, each of us loving him without question – and the strawberries, too. The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that. pg. 100
Hadley is extraordinarily sympathetic, but almost too saintly at times. She is that girlfriend that you just want to shake some sense into – “He’s treating you like garbage, for God’s sake! You’re better off without him!” And there were times when her forbearance bordered on the creepy, suffering through Hemingway’s flagrant adultery at an excruciatingly close distance. But her story of a life lived around genius is extremely compelling, and the characters of the Lost Generation – Alice B. Toklas, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos – come alive in this novel, as do the locations they visit in the interwar period, from Italy to Austria to Paris, of course.
Based on the title, I wonder if McLain is planning a sequel – The Key West Wife? That would be tricky, because Pauline Pfeiffer, the woman who stole Hemingway from Hadley, is pretty hateful in this book. I’m not sure I could read it.
I still hate Hemingway.
*I admit that I did learn to love John Donne, however, the other author that Dr. Kelley predicted would “grow on me” over time. One out of two isn’t bad.