What I’m Reading: The ever-popular “other side of the story” story

23 Aug

The Paris WifeThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wouldn’t call this fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s early career and marriage any great work of literature, but it was an interesting and lyrical read.

The Lost Generation makes for a fascinating subject, all the more intriguing for its being true–which is sometimes hard to believe. Nevermind the traveling all over the world partying hard on practically no money, there was the marriage itself–the center of the plot. At first I was just irritated with Hemingway, characterized (probably faithfully) as the brand of pig-headedness, selfishness, and insanity often typical of artistic genius. But when the affair arrives, as it must, Hadley drove me just as crazy.

I guess maybe it was “the times” (as my husband suggested when I was recounting the book), but sorry, I can’t buy it–that Hadley would remain friends with the other woman, that the three would travel together after the affair came to light, that she would just lay there in the same bed as her husband slept with his mistress.

I’m not referring to the truthfulness of those events, but the literary believability. In other words, it might be historically accurate that Hadley didn’t slap a bitch, but McLain didn’t give a compelling enough character justification for me. In fact, even in the epilogue (my least favorite kind..long, expositional narrative) it becomes clear that Hadley is entirely defined by Ernest, even 35 years after a four year marriage. By asserting that she and Ernest know she’s more than just “the Paris wife,” she proves that in fact, she isn’t.

For a book whose sole purpose is to flesh out a marginal historical figure, the reader gets a Hadley with surprisingly little sense of self.

Postscript: I am, however, inspired to revisit Hemingway’s writing. The real main character of this book is what they refer to as “the work,” and it’s the anchoring star of the constellation of the story’s events. I disliked Hemingway’s style during the obligatory lit/comp reading assignments, but I’ll add him to my try-again-now-that-I’m-more-grown-up list. 

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