One thing taken with another, I’ve read quite a bit from the high times of the American and British expatriates in Paris during the 1920s. I’ve read what they had to say about themselves, in novels and poetry and memoirs, and I’ve read biographies and histories of them, and I’ve read about them more obliquely, from the point of view of people who were not expatriates in Paris. (That would be actual Parisians.) So when I picked up Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, which is from the point of view of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, I had mixed feelings: what could it have to offer that would be new?
Alas, the answer is not much. I was looking forward to learning more about Hadley herself, because Hemingway makes it clear in A Moveable Feast that he loved her very tenderly during those first years, thought her charming and intelligent, and always regretted leaving her for his second wife (and many, many more women.) Unfortunately, McLain does not allow any of this charm or intelligence to shine through. Hadley constantly downplays her own qualities in favor of Hemingway’s white-hot talent, dash and pizzazz, and indeed, in comparison she does come off like a dud, slow on the uptake and dull. One example (of dozens) is when the two are courting by letter.
I made my reply last all day, putting things down as they happened, wanting to be sure he could picture me moving from room to room, practicing the piano, sitting down to a perfect cup of ginger tea with my friend Alice Hunt, watching our gardener prune the rosebushes and swaddle them in burlap for winter.
Um. You’re sending that to Hemingway? You might want to rethink that, honey.
While the novel hews very close to actual events (the wrenching moment when Hadley leaves Hemingway’s life work on the train; the trip to Toronto to have the baby; the friends — Pound, Stein, Fitzgerald — who kicked against Hemingway’s notional domestication), McLain paints the emotions in rather pedestrian terms. A Moveable Feast talks about Hadley and Hemingway’s relationship with wit and care. This novel, on the other hand, puts it all in black and white. Hadley is loyal, sweet, Victorian, a sounding-board for Hemingway’s brilliance. Hemingway is modern, bipolar, always in search of something new, to the ultimate detriment of the perfectly loving marriage he leaves behind him.
The problem is, of course, that The Paris Wife is a novel. McLain recycles parts of A Moveable Feast (and other Hemingway works, as well as letters for all I know), and dialogue from The Great Gatsby, but she’s not writing history. She’s making up the dialogue, making up the emotions and the way these people lived through the post-war trauma and brilliance that was the Jazz Age. While it’s a decent novel, and if it were about two completely imaginary people named Bemingway and Fadley it would be revealing about some truths of the human condition, it’s important not to read her book as fact about the real Hadley and Hemingway. McLain is supposing — isn’t it pretty to think so? — and it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of believing it. Save your emotion for a biography of the couple, or for the marvelous Everybody Was So Young, a biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy by Amanda Vaill. There’s enough sorrow there to go around.