Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Paris Wife - Paula McIain

When I studied literature in college, my least favorite writers were the American ones from the '20s and '30s, and that definitely included Ernest Hemingway.  I thought the topic of many of the novels from this period were boring, and the writing just never grabbed me - even if I was told over and over that it was sophisticated in its simplicty.  But, I also know that I love a good backstory - and once I've learned something about someone, I suddenly become a little more interested in reading something about them that I previously couldn't stand.  This definitely happened for me with Henry James, after reading Colm Toibin's fictional biography, The MasterThe Paris Wife is the story of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, and their tumultuous relationship in Paris, among the Lost Generation of Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and many others.  It is fundamentally a story of a woman in love with a man in love with his fame and art.  This was a difficult read just in terms of watching a woman give up so much, constantly standing in the background and making sacrifices, and then made to feel as if she was hampering her husband's career or, at times, intentionally sabotaging it.  Given what many people know about Hemingway's life going in to this read, you know the relationship will end in betrayal, and that Hemingway's own life ends tragically.  His treatment of Hadley throughout the novel is a function of what seems to be a tendency toward depression, extreme self-doubt and loathing, alcoholism, and unaddressed mental illness.  In short, he is not painted in the most flattering light.  But, the book brings his relationship with Hadley to life, and introduced the reader to the life and obsessions that became the basis for his famous novels.  As a novel on its own, I thought this was fantastic - and yes, on my last trip to the library, I did check out a copy of The Sun Also Rises.

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