Katherine Bailey on Books
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Current Books The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Does Genius Excuse Behavior?

Early in their relationship Ernest Hemingway confides to Hadley Richardson: “I want to write one true sentence. If I can write one sentence, simple and true, everyday, I’ll be satisfied.”

The two meet for the first time in Chicago late in 1920 when Hemingway is a struggling journalist with an ambition to write fiction. Hadley is 28 and Hemingway is eight years her junior. She is living a sheltered and somewhat gloomy life in St. Louis where her only joy comes from playing the piano. The shadow cast by her alcoholic father’s suicide and her mother’s recent death has begun to seem permanent.

Basing her excellent novel, The Paris Wife, on letters, biographies and Hemingway’s autobiographical pieces, Paula McLain offers us her version of Hadley’s perceptions and consciousness. It is through the character of Hadley that we become acquainted with one of America’s literary giants, with the magic and seediness of expatriate Paris in the twenties, and with fascinating individuals such as John Dos Passos, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.

Dancing with Ernest at Chicago house parties quickly snaps Hadley out of her despondent mindset. Outrageously handsome and vibrant, he flirts with her, regaling her with tales from his time spent as an ambulance driver at the front in the Great War. Exuberant, impetuous, and full of plans for the future, to the romantic Hadley he is “a light-footed lad on a Grecian Urn, chasing truth and beauty.”

As to Hadley’s appearance, McLain contrasts her with the bobbed-hair and brightly-rouged flapper girls of the era. Hadley is a “Victorian holdout” with her long, reddish hair knotted at the nape of her neck, her round, rosy cheeks, her generous figure, and her “anything-goes” smile.

When Hadley returns home to St. Louis, the couple carries on a correspondence. His letters reveal “tenderness” and “palpable warmth.” After a year-long courtship Ernest and Hadley are married in Horton, Michigan, near where he grew up. McLain underscores the fact that Hemingway fears marriage, but that he is also afraid of being alone. A relative’s will grants a modest annuity to Hadley, making it possible for the newlyweds to move to Paris. Ernest continues to work intermittently as a newspaper correspondent, but he is convinced that Paris will provide the creative atmosphere and invaluable literary connections necessary for his success as a writer of fiction.

They rent cheap rooms next to a public dance hall in the unfashionable Fifth Arrondissement. If Hemingway loves the place at first sight, Hadley feels disappointed and homesick. It is during the early months of adjusting to Paris that Hadley becomes realistic about her relationship with her husband. The portrayal of this emotional transformation is an illustration of McLain’s mastery of characterization, and it is certainly one of the novel’s major achievements. McLain attributes to Hadley a twin insight: Ernest’s writing matters more to him than she does, but at the same time he needs her absolutely. Hadley understands, too, that Ernest’s writing ambitions are “fierce and all encompassing.” Perhaps most significantly, Hadley understands that he is “out for himself, whatever the cost.”

In spite of this, Hadley promises herself that she will never stand in the way of his work. In fact she views his career as her own and believes it is her role “to help him carve a way.” He would live “inside the creative sphere,” and Hadley would live on the outside. Ernest writes in a rented single room away from the confines of their cramped apartment, and she honors his freedom to disappear away from her and to return only when he is ready. Hadley relates: “I missed Ernest’s company all day, but he didn’t seem to miss mine, not while there was work to do. When he craved contact, he stopped in to visit the Cézannes and Monets at the Musée du Luxemborg, believing they had already done what he was starving for – distilling places and people and objects to their essential qualities.”

Ernest’s expatriate friends – very few of whom are married – believe that he will succeed, that it is only a matter of time. But he routinely receives rejections on short stories he has submitted to magazines, and consequently he is often depressed. Seeing him like this at close range disturbs Hadley, and because of baggage from her own past – namely, her father’s suicide – she worries excessively. She wonders, “Did this sadness belong to [Ernest] in the fatal way my father’s belonged to him?” But feeding off each other’s certainties and enthusiasms, the two manage to thrive.

One winter the Toronto Star sends Ernest to Lausanne to cover the peace conference that would decide a territorial dispute between Greece and Turkey. The two arrange for Hadley to join Ernest there when the conference concludes so that they can continue on to the Alps for an extended ski vacation. Knowing how long they’d be away and how eager Ernest would be to get to work again on his writing, Hadley decides to surprise him by bringing all his manuscripts with her to Lausanne. Boarding the train at the Gare de Lyon, she places the valise, containing everything her husband has written since moving to Paris and before, under her seat. In a ghastly turn of events someone steals the valise, and it is never recovered. (Truth is stranger than fiction!)

Telling Ernest of the loss of “every thought and sentence he had sweated over,” every sketch, poem and fragment of his writing, is enormously difficult for Hadley. And while Ernest’s wounds from this disaster are still fresh Hadley must inform her husband that she is pregnant. While she is thrilled over her condition, Ernest believes that they are not settled enough financially to take on a baby. In his dark moments he suspects Hadley of attempting “to sabotage his work and ambition.”

During Hadley’s pregnancy the couple travels with other expatriates to Pamplona in Spain for the bullfighting. The Fiesta de San Fermin reputedly drew the most murderous bulls and the highest-skilled toreros. McLain’s description of the running of the bulls through the city – as the Hemingways look on from a balcony – is masterful. The Pamplona experience provides Ernest with material for several riveting sketches, and, of course, for his celebrated novel, The Sun Also Rises.

In order to support a family of three, Ernest is forced to put aside his fiction writing and find journalism assignments. Son Bumby had been born in Toronto late in 1923. Hemingway is frustrated with his work at the Toronto Star – over “slogging away at stories.” He considers the work beneath him, like the feature article on the arrival of a peacock at a Toronto Zoo.

But early in 1925 an exalted moment in Hemingway’s career occurs: Boni & Liveright accepts for publication his novel, In Our Time. Ernest and Hadley are skiing in the Alps when they receive the happy news. She is every bit as pleased as he is. McLain notes: “It was the end of Ernest’s struggle with apprenticeship and an end to other things as well. He would never again be unknown.” With his long, unruly hair and tennis shoes and patched jacket, Hemingway is by now the quintessential expatriate writer, recognizable anywhere along the Left Bank.

Gradually, as his reputation grows, the Hemingways engage with a new circle of friends, a group consisting of wealthy artists “who are utterly focused on living well and having the very best of everything.” Keeping up with the women in the group challenges Hadley. While she considers them peacocks, she perceives herself as “a garden-variety hen.” Prominent in the circle is a rich woman from St. Louis named Pauline Pfeiffer who has come to Paris to work for Vogue. We see her through Hadley’s eyes: “She was impossibly chic and wore a coat made of hundreds of chipmunk skins sewn painfully together and a pair of champagne-colored shoes that might have been the finest I’d ever seen…She was slim through the hips and shoulders, with sharply-cut bangs falling nearly to her eyebrows.”

Before long Pauline endears herself to both Hemingways, and they become a threesome. Pauline bolsters Ernest’s moods and becomes a personal advocate for his writing. Ernest comments to Hadley that Pauline “reads so much” and “she can talk about books beautifully.” Hadley does not pretend to be a critic. “I couldn’t tell him,” she explains, “why his work was good and why it mattered to Literature…Pauline could do that.”

Pauline has a knack for telling Ernest what he wants to hear. This, of course, was a powerful tonic for him. Predictably, Hadley begins to feel jealous, and bitterness between wife and husband surfaces. By the time Hemingway and Pauline are carrying on a sexual relationship, he forms a distorted plan in which Hadley will continue to be his wife while Pauline will be “his girl.” When Hadley confronts her husband about his extra-marital affair, his response implies that the affair itself is not the issue. Hadley’s “very bad taste” in mentioning it was the problem.

Around the time that The Sun Also Rises comes out in the U.S. Hadley leaves Hemingway, taking Bumby with her. The separation comes after five years of marriage and many months of anguish and empty threats.

In an affirming epilogue, after pointing out that Ernest will marry Pauline and then marry twice more in addition to having many lovers, Hadley states that she believes that she had Ernest when he was his best self.

A theme frequently addressed in fiction underpins McLain’s novel: Does talent excuse behavior? Somewhere in the book Hadley says: “Ernest was such a big person metaphorically speaking. He took up all the air in a room and magnetized and drew everyone to him, men and women and children and dogs.”

Ernest Hemingway was, indeed, a “big person metaphorically.” Readers will decide for themselves whether or not the character of Ernest – as interpreted by McLain – was a person of integrity.