In my first trip to the City of Lights in 1989, my friends and I put on the dog one evening to dine at Le Dôme Café; not only is it a famous restaurant, but it was a literary pilgrimage for us: to eat where Hemingway had dined in Paris (along with a remarkable set of other writers and artists!). I began reading such works as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls in junior high as they were so accessible, so direct in prose style. As an adult, I’m much more aware of what a difficult personality Hemingway could be, but I continue to admire his writing.
The Paris Wife, the recent novel by Paula McLain, was a natural choice to include on a trip to Paris–although the Hemingways cover a lot of territory in their almost five year marriage: skiing in Switzerland; running with the bulls and viewing bull fights in Spain; working in Toronto. They lead an exhilarating life, even if it is on a few dollars a day. (At one point, they note that they are scraping by on $3000 a year while Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald fritter away $30,000 easily in the same time.) In addition to the scintillating, if sad, Fitzgeralds, the Hemingways are, in Paris, in the middle of an amazing array of literary giants: Gertrude Stein (and her partner Alice B. Toklas), Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford. It’s almost as if the reader is a voyeur on a group that was to take on celebrity status, literary lions; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is just out, and Hemingway is “on the brink” although he and Hadley live in very low-rent digs.
I read this novel rather quickly as the sense of impending doom and great sadness pervades the story. It’s a known fact that Hadley was the first of four Hemingway wives, perhaps the “best” and certainly a “better” individual than Hemingway himself, more honest and sincere. But, Hadley is also without a lot of interest. She’s attractive, sporty, and loyal. But does she have the intensity and drive that Hemingway has in his quest to produce great writing? Hardly. She is the classic wife-helper, and it can be a lesson for any woman that perhaps devoting oneself to wife and mother roles entirely while sacrificing self may result in a partner who’s not very interesting or intellectually stimulating.
And Hadley makes mistakes. Most costly is the one in which she packs up all of Hemingway’s manuscripts to take to him, uninvited to do so, and then loses the valise on the train. Can he ever forgive her? (Charles Cagle wrote a wonderful short story about the lost manuscripts that appeared in the early 1980s in The Little Balkans Review, a journal of southeastern Kansas, housed at Pittsburg State University.) In addition to the manuscript tragedy, Hadley also left at home any birth control although Hemingway had distinctly said “no children” until they were more financially stable. Her pregnancy with their son John (more commonly called “Bumby”) was not happy news. But, having a child made her existence more bearable, given the regular absences of her husband.
But absences she could stand, his dalliances with other women less so. But she overlooked several until it became clear that wife #2, Pauline, was in the wings. (Pauline might be called the “Key West Wife” if a novel were written about her since the two of them decamped Europe when married.)The portrait of Hemingway is not a flattering one as it appears that he think he can have it all–wife and mistress–as he’s watched others in his circle manage to do that successfully. But Hadley comes to the realization that she is not interested in being less than the only woman in his life. McLain does a nice round-up at the end of the novel about what happens to Hadley Richardson post-Hemingway, and the Q&A apparatus for book clubs is also helpful.
Hemingway finally addressed the Paris years with Hadley in his late-in-life memoir A Moveable Feast, which would make an excellent companion to read with this book written in Hadley’s voice.
For readers traveling to Paris, it is easy to walk in the Hemingway footsteps: their first apartment at rue du Carnidal-Lemoine; Shakespeare & Company bookstore, where owner Sylvia Beach nurtured aspiring writers; Jardin du Luxembourg, where he took Bumby to play.
The draw to Hemingway is strong, and he achieved almost mythic status in his lifetime. At one point in our lives, so taken with Hemingway’s broad reach of travel and writing, my husband and I contemplated a project we called “The Hemingway Year,” visiting sites that he wrote about. It seemed a wonderful romantic fantasy to explore Hemingway-related sites with a round-the-world airline ticket, and we spent some good times mapping out the journey. We began by visiting his gravesite in Ketchum, Idaho. Much of the pleasure of travel is in the planning, and we didn’t regret any of those conversations about what where we might visit, but in the end, Monty Python alum Michael Palin beat us to it.