No One You Love Is Ever Truly Lost
Who was Ernest Hemingway before he became a looming tower of American letters, in addition to a quintessentially American action-adventure hero whose boozing, big game hunting in Africa, fishing, and other exploits always threatened to overshadow even his literary accomplishments and crush him in the process? Paula McClain’s novel, The Paris Wife, imaginatively answers this question through the eyes of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s often overlooked first wife, whose silence hid a strength, vibrancy, and charm that helped fuel Hemingway’s growth and success as a writer and adventurer.
It is often said that no one knows what goes on between two people in a marriage. Based on her reading of letters from their early courtship, McClain gives us a compelling fly-on-the-wall view of that give-and-take between Hadley and Hemingway as they meet in October 1920 and quickly fall in love. The character of the withdrawn Hadley easily takes on shape and character as she falls for the dashing young journalist when they meet at a friend’s house in Chicago. Family illness and struggles have dampened her joy, and she has forgotten who she is. After falling out of a window as a child, her domineering mother tries to wrap her in cotton, thereby hiding her natural fearlessness and curiosity and trapping her in a domestic sphere where she dreams and reads in the parlor.
McClain’s writing is vivid, clear, and completely absorbing when she sketches Hadley’s emergence as an essential part of Hemingway’s life. When Hadley meets Hemingway, his vitality and comfort with himself completely appeals to her, in part because it speaks to her own strength and capacity for relishing new experiences. When they marry, she takes her first steps towards her own adventure, one wound up completely with him and his burning desire to write the truth of relationships, and his fascination with death and the way brushing up against it reaffirms what it is to be thoroughly alive. She sees them in symbiosis, saying “I knew he needed me absolutely, and I wanted him to go on needing me forever.”
With the help of acclaimed writer Sherwood Anderson, who provides them with letters of introduction to Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach of the acclaimed bookstore Shakespeare & Company, the Hemingways sail away to the bohemian Paris of the nineteen-twenties, where they find a small dingy flat and an overwhelming barrage of sights, smells, sounds, and experiences. As Hadley and Ernest embark on married life, she is empowered and nurtured through her own explorations of Paris and with the knowledge that she can help him like no one else, even as she realizes how his writing life consumes him. He is sometimes haunted by his experiences in World War I, and the unease and fracturing of modern life threads throughout their interactions while he toils to get published and read by artists in Europe and America.
McClain does a marvelous job at evoking the atmosphere of 1920s Paris. Hemingway forms close bonds with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others who make Paris a bubbling hot spring of artistic imagination, as they try to make sense of and capture a newly minted modernity and frightening freedom: the freedom that comes when no pre-war societal rules seem to apply. Her book is like a ticket to Jazz Age Paris, where one can experience all the swirling discordancy and creativity that served to inspire this new generation of writers and artists.
In this book, Hadley’s character lends itself to multiple interpretations. She plays the piano very well but is overly self-effacing about her skills. When a friend urges her to plan a concert, she does, but cancels the venue when marital trouble overcomes her. Literally, she loses her voice: her playing. In one way, her voice never gets heard as a primary figure among their “set” in Paris. She is often left to socialize with artists’ wives rather than the artists themselves. In watching them through her eyes, we see that her essence is a steadiness, honesty, humor, and traditional urge to be a wonderful mother: she is a safe haven from the instability and hedonism that whirls around her. While she plays second fiddle to Ernest’s needs, though, she quietly becomes much stronger within herself, a fully realized personality. Despite her broken heart, she will not accept her much-beloved husband’s deep-seated insecurities when they manifest themselves in his need to have another woman in his bed and constantly in their lives.
McClain has wisely made Hadley’s narrative voice that of someone who is both outsider and insider. Through her we see Hemingway become a distortion-cum-exaggeration of the exciting, vital individual he is. He exhibits brashness, rudeness to many in their artistic coterie, takes up with a superficial set of writers and tries to distance himself from those who supported him in an effort to top them. Yet despite his mammoth flaws, skewed behavior, and huge appetite for new experience, Hemingway never stopped loving Hadley. In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, he wrote almost forty years and three other wives later “I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”
I recommend The Paris Wife to anyone who enjoys the romance of The Lost Generation of writers in Paris, or who appreciates the story of a relationship that exists between people struggling to understand and support one another while realizing themselves in a broken world where the pieces have to be put back together in a new and exciting way.
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer