They say that the beginning of a book is crucially important; the very first sentences should be perfect, because that’s where you hook them. ”The Paris Wife” begins like this:
Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris. Part of it was the war. The world had ended once already and could again at any moment.
I was hooked. I could say I was... in love.
The rest of the book is almost as good: clear but beautiful language. I was not surprised to learn that the author also writes poetry.
”The Paris Wife” is a story about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and the years they spent together. And those were some years! They met when they were young, Hemingway was an aspiring writer, scarred from the war but full of confidence. Despite opposition from friends and family, they married and moved to Paris, where they lived among the lost generation in the roaring twenties. Hadley stood by Ernest through the hardships and, eventually, the victories, of his early career. They socialised with anyone who was someone at the time: the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, etc. and consumed incredible amounts of whiskey and absinthe. They spent holidays in the Alps and the French Riviera, they watched bull fighting in Spain.
McLain portrays Hemingway as a sympathetic figure. It is easy to see how his enthusiasm and lust for life could be charming, but he could also be a selfish bastard, or, as it is said in the Epilogue: he was an “enigma – fine and strong and weak and cruel. An incomparable friend and a Sonofabitch”. Naturally, I was intrigued by the writing life, and there it was: the drive, the uncertainties (“Sometimes I think all I really need is one person telling me that I’m not knocking my fool head against the bricks. That I have a shot at it.”), the disappointments and the difficulty of finding a balance between creative spirit and family life. There is a painful incident where Hadley loses Hemingway's manuscripts (no, there are no copies) on a train, and that nearly made me physically ill. The thought of losing several years' worth of work… but then, he rallied, and once he got writing again (it did take a while), he was better than ever.
But more than with Hemingway, I sympathised with Hadley: she feels a little lost among all the artistic geniuses, but she isn’t entirely comfortable being just the artist’s wife, either. She seems to always feel a little out of place, being too straightforward and family-valued and romantic for the fashionable life of the rich and famous. She sees through the superficial glitter of their lifestyle:
Everything could be snarled all to hell under the surface as long as you didn’t let it crack through and didn’t speak its name, particularly not at cocktail hour, when everyone was very jolly and working hard to be that way and to show how perfectly good life could be if your were lucky, as we were. Just have your drink, then, and another, and don’t spoil it.
With various temperamental artists thrown together, there is plenty of drama and, unfortunately, betrayal and inevitable disillusionment... but also hope and love. My only complaint is that some of the minor characters remained rather one-dimensional; I could not tell some of them apart. Then again, they were minor characters, so that did not matter much.
Also, I was really looking forward to the “Author’s Notes” at the end of the book – they’re always a real treat – but was somewhat disappointed to find this part rather short. I would have loved to learn more about how much was fiction and how much was based on research. However, the author mentions various sources, so if I really want to know, I can always find out more.
All in all, this was a book I didn’t want to put down. It is a fascinating, vivid account of a writer's life and the art world in the 1920s. And it is very well written. I’ll definitely check out other novels by McLain – and I suddenly find myself wanting to read something by Hemingway!