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Book falls flat in telling of Hemingway

So ends Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his years as a young writer in Paris. This book contains the best of Hemingway: his prose style, crisp and clear as a glass of fine chardonnay; his reporter’s eye for detail; his talent for dialogue and for character. A Moveable Feast also gives us the worst of Hemingway as a person: his habit of kicking in the face those whom he had passed up on the ladder of success, writers such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his penchant for blaming his own personal follies on the actions of others.

One striking feature of A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s remaining affection of his first wife, Hadley. She shared his life in those early years in Paris, and for the rest of his days Hemingway remained in love with her. After his betrayal of her, he writes that “when I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in  … I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Paula McLain’s novel, The Paris Wife (ISBN 978-0-345-52130-9, 2011, $25) tells the story of Hemingway’s Paris years from Hadley’s viewpoint. She begins her book with an account of Hadley’s first meeting with Hemingway in 1920, gives us Hadley’s background — she was sickly as a child, became a caretaker for her family, and found in Hemingway a release from her stifling home — and then moves us along with the newly-married Hemingways to Paris and the excitement of those years. Through Hadley’s eyes, we meet writers like Ezra Pound (“Over in the shadowy corner of the studio, Ernest was literally crouched at Pound’s feet while the older man lectured, waving a teapot around as he talked”) and Gertrude Stein (her eyes were “the deepest and most opaque shade of brown, critical and accepting, curious and amused”). Through Hadley, McLain shows us the squalor of the apartment in which they lived when they first came to Paris, gives us the conversations of the artists and writers in the boulevard cafes, and imparts a sense of the magic which Hemingway and others found then in Paris.

McLain also gives us a different view of Hemingway than many of his biographers, nearly all of whom are male. Here we take in Hemingway through a woman’s eyes, and though the book is fictional, we acquire a different image of Papa than that found in the many books written about him. McLain captures the difficulties of being close to Hemingway every day, his mood swings, the intensity he brought to his writing, the demands he placed on his marriage, his growing love for Pauline Pfeiffer, who was wealthier and younger than Hadley, and would eventually take Hemingway away from her. When Hadley finds herself pregnant, Hemingway responds like a truculent child, and though he eventually becomes as good a father in the book as he was in real life, McLain’s Hadley lets us understand how deeply his initial negative reaction to her pregnancy hurt their marriage and her love for him.

The Paris Wife has its weaknesses. Though McLain ably captures the Paris of the twenties, and gives us fine sketches of people like Pound and Fitzgerald, she somehow fails to give us an adequate portrait of Hadley herself. Though she herself tells us the story, Hadley as narrator seems thinly drawn somehow, two-dimensional, all surface and no depth. By the end of the book, we are left wondering what Hemingway saw in this flighty, shallow woman. Here the incident of Hemingway’s stolen manuscripts might serve as an example. On a train from Paris to Lausanne to meet Hemingway, Hadley had stolen from her a valise containing most of Hemingway’s stories. This incident was a terrible catastrophe for the real-life Hemingway and his wife: there were no copies, and the loss was temporarily devastating to the young couple. Yet in The Paris Wife, the incident is covered in four pages, and we have little sense that Hadley feels much remorse over the stolen manuscripts. While Hemingway goes back to Paris to search their apartment for the stories, as he did in real life, the Hadley of The Paris Wife seems under whelmed by the disaster. After Hemingway leaves, a friend, journalist Lincoln Steffens, takes Hadley in hand. “Steffens took me to dinner and tried to calm my nerves, but even with several whiskeys in me, I jangled.” She “jangled”: that is the complete description of Hadley’s emotional state during her husband’s desperate search for his lost writings.

McLain makes a mistake, too, of writing as if her readers already know the facts of Hemingway’s life, and more importantly, his philosophy. Though she is undoubtedly correct — most people who pick up this book will do so from an interest in Hemingway — her assumptions weaken her writing, with the reader left to fill in what she has left out. At the end of the book, for example, when Hadley is an old woman, she reports that “I couldn’t pretend to be surprised by Ernest’s death. I’d heard from various friends about the sanatorium in Rochester and the terrible shock treatments. Death was always there for him, sometimes only barely balanced out.” Balanced out by what? McLain doesn’t tell us. Indeed, Hadley’s emotional reaction to her first husband’s death seems as flat and cold as yesterday’s headlines.

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Nonetheless, there are readers who always enjoy reading about the life of Papa. For them, The Paris Wife should provide some diverting entertainment.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. Ballantine Books, 2011. 336 pages

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