I recently got around to reading The Paris Wife. This is Paula McLain’s fictionalized novel about Ernest Hemingway, in particular, Paris in the 20s in general, and Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, a little. In the interests of full confession, I should probably say that I’ve read a bit about this time, and have a rather morbid fascination with Paris in the 20s, Hemingway, and a few of the other writers of the time. So perhaps I put this book off for fear of being disappointed. I do, after all, have a rather rich scene in my head of what I think Paris in the 20s looked like. So much in the same way a movie can destroy a book for some people, I think I was afraid the book would destroy my interior scenery. I need not have feared. While the book is admirable for tackling such a topic, and clearly well researched, as a book it falls short. Hadley’s character is lacking, bits of vintage dialogue come off as either artificial sounding or too saccharine, and she occasionally can’t resist straying into the head of Hemingway himself. And in the end, I think she would have been happier telling the story from Hemingway’s perspective, though I can see why that task would seem so daunting. As it is, Hemingway charges in and out of the pages much as we might have expected the big, blustery man to do in real life. But Hadley, though perhaps true to character, fades into the background. We keep reading to find out what happens with Hemingway (even if know all too well). Paula herself seems uninterested in Hadley after Hemingway leaves, completing her story in a matter of pages – and winding it down with Hemingway’s suicide. So basically, I found the construction odd, the dialogue clunky, and a decided lack of both Paris and “wife” in The Paris Wife.
And yet, I rather enjoyed this book. The motley crew of writers and their psychoses, their endless bottles of wine and drippy glasses of absinthe, and altogether waywardness was still fascinating to me. In the end, really, that’s what’s so fascinating about the time. That any of them – Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein – ever managed to write a word is astonishing to me. And, indeed, so LIKE so many of the writers I know, sometimes, frankly, myself included. I had my first absinthe in a hotel room in Spain, in which eight writers crowded, after we’d already finished multiple other drinks, and at least two bottles of champagne. We slipped from bar to bar that night, swam naked in the sea, raced around a playground at dawn. We saw the sun come up three days in a row, and even quipped how true it was, the sun also rises in Spain, the sun also rises for us, in spite of us. Life as a writer in New Orleans is little different. There is always mayhem, and making work happen in the midst of it can be a struggle. And there are always those, too, who take it darker, longer, or drink deeper than they should.
So for me, I guess, because lets face it, reading a book really is the ultimate in self-indulgence, this book was actuallysomething of a parable. Many have viewed the lives of the expats as a kind of how to be a famous writer, and hordes of budding writers, journalists, and adventure seekers descend on Pamplona every year to see if for them, too, The Sun Also Rises. But for me, The Paris Wife was a reminder that all that glitters isn’t necessarily literary gold. And, too, I want neither to be Hadley nor Hemingway. I want to have my absinthe and my death at old age from natural causes too…