“Beauty was a liar” The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Hemingway Collection/JFK Library, via Associated Pres

Paris: I immediately loved the cafes, architecture, art, and culture – all so resplendent and just as promised to me in books and films. The stories of expatriate artistes calling this lovely city home in the 1920s always sounded nothing but glamorous, bohemian, and just free. Ezra Pound advising new writers? Gertrude Stein dining in her salon with Pablo Picasso? F. Scott Fitzgerald revising and publishing his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby? And Ernest Hemingway cutting through the existing notions of English literature with his straight, stoic voice.  Hadley Richardson was Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, living the five or so years of their marriage with him in Paris as he struggled through the pains of being an emerging writer. Hadley spends much of the marriage feeling displaced and insufficient, her identity completely lost to him and his work.

Author Paula McLain, though more clichéd then poetic in her story-telling, manages to portray Paris through the eyes of the unglamorous Hadley that taints my impression of the literary scene à Paris en 1920s. Through Hadley’s simple, provincial eyes, we see the excess, the drama, “…in Paris, everyone was so drastic and dramatic, flinging themselves into ditches for each other.” The license to live unconventional lives as expatriates takes the creative types to soaring heights in their quest to be and do anything and everything they sought, with no barriers, no restrictions, no cultural stigmas or social compulsions. They could not, however, escape consequences.  Often times under the guise of free-living and liberation, lurked despondent circumstances, causing madness, over-indulgence in intoxication and severe unhappiness.

Unfortunately for Hadley, a girl from Chicago with very few purported ambitions, the freedom stifled her instead of liberating her. She remained true to herself, knowing that she did not really belong. She sought most desperately the things that were most rare in the context of their Paris life: stability and simplicity. As Hemingway’s career progressed, their relationship regressed. He moved from one era of his life to the next, feeling entitled to seek out new relationships to go along with his career at its creative new heights.

The Paris Wife is surely an oversimplified rendition and the slightest glimpse into the legendary personalities who shaped American literature in profound ways. It is also a simple story of a marriage that does not survive fame, freedom, and perhaps beauty — the beauty of Paris that was too much to bear. All that seemed beautiful about the lives and times of the American literary scene in Paris now seems illusive, but intriguing all the same. Without the madness and the lies, perhaps the world wouldn’t have the likes of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, forever celebrated for their creative genius.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Read also A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway’s own accounts of his experiences during his early years as an expatriate writer)
Brenda Wineapple’s New York Times Book Review of The Paris Wife

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