In a recent conversation with a co-worker I had an epiphany: I love books about tortured souls. Before you go, "Oh, that is so depressing!" let me explain. My favorite book is "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, a story of a group of soldiers struggling to find themselves after witnessing extreme trauma during the Vietnam War. My second favorite book is the "Great Gatsby", another tortured soul. So it's no surprise that I fell in love with Paula McLain's "The Paris Wife."
I first learned of "The Paris Wife" by reading a review in Entertainment Weekly magazine. This review described the book as the untold story of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson.
Though I hated my 11th grade English teacher, it was in his class that I read my first Hemingway story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Each time we would begin a new book, this teacher (as I loathed him, I will not divulge his name) had us perform an exercise where we would come to class with six facts, three about the book and three about the author's personal life. We would write the facts about the book on one side of the chalkboard and the facts about the author on the other side. Before we had even read a single page in the new book, we would have a discussion about how the author might have drawn on his/her personal experience to create his/her work.
It was this 11th grade exercise that began my continued curiosity about the personal lives of great writers. As soon as I learned about "The Paris Wife" I knew I had to read it.
This novel (which is technically fiction) tells the life story of Hadley Richardson, a young, conservative girl from St. Louis who meets an even younger Ernest Hemingway through a mutual friend she is visiting in Chicago. Hadley is immediately struck by Ernest's greatness and is spellbound. The story follows Hadley as she falls for Ernest, as he proposes via snail mail, as they get married and then move to Paris so Ernest can live and work among fellow artists.
The author effortlessly transports you onto the streets of Paris. You can hear the dance hall music, smell the cigarettes and taste the whiskey. You marvel at Hadley and Ernest's real life friends: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You rejoice when Ernest's work is first published and beam with pride at the birth of their son, affectionately called Bumby. You inhale every second of the Hadley, Ernest and Bumby's adventures in Paris, Pamplona and Schruns. Paula McLain is a fantastically descriptive writer. She allows you to relish in beauty and commiserate in pain.
The pain is the heart of "The Paris Wife." Though certainly to the outside world Hadley Richardson's life went from small town, country bumpkin to glamorous woman of the world, her life was a daily struggle. Hadley was completely, utterly devoted to Ernest. She saw her role in life as his primary supporter and cheerleader, no matter the cost. However, Ernest's first love was himself. He was consumed by his writing, his need to be respected and to carve a substantial place from himself in history.
Hadley suffers tremendously in her life with Ernest and the author nurtures your empathy for her in a way that leaves your heart breaking. It takes until the epilogue for the reader to learn the origin of the book's title, but on page 311 it reads:
"He had four wives altogether and many lovers as well. It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife. But that was probably vanity, wanting to stand out in a long line of women. In truth it didn't matter what others saw. We knew what we had and what it meant, and though so much had happened since for both of us, there was nothing like those years in Paris, after the war. Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other."
It is the raw emotion, the sincere vulnerability, that makes "The Paris Wife" sing. I read the final thirty pages slowly because I didn't want the book to end. If you are seeking book recommendations, "The Paris Wife" is not to be missed.
I may gravitate towards tortured souls, but I wouldn't have it any other way.