A quick scan of my bookshelf at home might suggest a particular interest of mine: 1920s Paris, that unmistakable era when some of history’s greatest literary heavyweights and bohemian artists emerged. And although countless classic novels came of this time — The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises — it’s the (many, many) memoirs that speak to me most, like real-life fairy tales for any aspiring writer.
From Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to Morley Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris, Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and John Glassco’s buoyant Memoirs of Montparnasse, it’s a topic that bears repeating from countless unique perspectives. If you were thinking about starting a book club with an ongoing theme, there’s certainly plenty of material here.
Because I’ve read the story from so many angles, I was immediately drawn to American writer Paula McLain’s new historical novel The Paris Wife, essentially a fictional retelling of A Moveable Feast from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife (out of four). Hadley, sensible and supportive to a fault, seems to be one of the few people from that period who didn’t publish a memoir telling her own side of the story.
McLain’s novel tells the tale of 28-year-old Hadley, who meets the younger, charismatic Hemingway while he is confident but unknown and eager for someone to believe in his budding talent. The two eventually marry and when they move from Chicago to Paris, their circle of soon-to-be-legendary artist friends grows: they share bottles of absinthe with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, debate art and literature with Gertrude Stein, borrow books from Sylvia Beach’s still-famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore, and seek advice from Ezra Pound.
Through the author’s research of the many biographies, memoirs, and archived letters from the time, McLain has written a believable recreation of how the rise of Hemingway’s career coincided with the fall of his hopeful first marriage. While it describes the many alcohol-fueled meetings that took place at cafes like the Closerie des Lilas, McLain takes creative license by describing how the very devoted, traditional Hadley must have felt trying to keep her marriage in tact when she was “surrounded by triangles — freethinking, free-living lovers willing to bend every convention to find something right or risky or liberating enough.”
Oh, Hadley. By the end of the book, when Ernest is publicly flirting with other women and her duplicitous friend Pauline (soon to be the second Mrs. Hemingway) has weaseled her way into their home, the reader just wants to shake some sense into her. Some of her more “modern” acquaintances of the time might have accepted that their husbands were taking mistresses, but a few key scenes — staying beneath the water’s surface too long, a dream about suffocation — show that Hadley is not cut out for this kind of open marriage.
Although The Paris Wife tells the story from Hadley’s point of view, it can be frustrating to see how Ernest is still at the centre of everything she does. “His preoccupation with his work made me sharply aware that I had no passion of my own,” she says in the novel. Still, it’s a testament to McLain’s obvious reverence for the subject matter that it truly felt like I was reading another in the long line of memoirs.
Hadley never fit in with the rich, ultra-chic women walking the streets of Paris — she never much cared about keeping up with the fashion — but in the end she chooses a necessary confrontation instead of living with her unhappiness. It’s easy to see why, at the end of his own memoir, Hemingway wrote, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”