Book of the month : Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Summer season was heralded by a hot discussion on the book of the month, ‘Paris Wife’. The book’s theme is the joys, trials and tribulations shared by Ernest Hemingway and his first (among four) wife, Hadley Richardson. Though a fictional account narrated in first person by Hadley, the story is based on in-depth research on Hemingway and Hadley’s life. The book was recommended by Snigdha and many of the members at the book club meeting were excited to read a book about Hemingway, an all-time favorite author. I think the book also really clicked with our all ladies group as the story revolved around the marital theme and what makes a marriage tick or in this case, not.
We discussed several facets of the book but two aspects drew the most discussion and debate. The first aspect was the skewed nature of marriage when one of the spouses is exceedingly talented and driven like Hemingway. The story unravels during the early days when a young Hemingway is trying to make his mark in the literary world. The entire focus of the relationship between him and Hadley is on his need to channel his creative energies into producing a superlative work of literature. Everything else is insignificant. The sole focus of Hemingway’s life at that juncture appears to be to use everyone especially Hadley as a resource to tap his own creativity. Hadley accepts this role as gracefully as she can, but is uncomfortable in the bohemian atmosphere of Paris. Monogamy and Victorian standards are out of place in the Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s. Hadley allows herself to be used as fuel to light the creative energies of Ernest’s artistic temperament. But she secretly does grudge all the time and energy that Hemingway takes away from her and their marriage. The marriage thrives for several years in spite of the harsh conditions but finally succumbs to Hemingway’s brazen infidelity. After reading this book, many of the book club members expressed their new found respect for those spouses who carry the unequal burden of relationships with the creative and artistic creatures of this world.
Another hotly discussed topic was the choice made by the author to write the book in the first person using the voice of Hadley. Since the book is a fictional account of real life characters, writing the story from Hadley’s perspective lends the book an autobiographical air. Some of the members felt that this was a little unethical on part of the author as the book creates an impression that it is expressing what Hadley truly felt and endured while in reality the book was not authorized by Hadley. Other members felt that the book was compelling because it was written in first person and the declaration by the author that the book is fictional sufficiently warns the readers that the story has to be taken ‘with a pinch of salt’.
Overall, reading the book once again whetted the book club’s members’ appetite for Hemingway’s delightful fare and many of us spent our summer afternoons leafing through the old favorites-The Old Man and the Sea, A Movable Feast, A Farewell to Arms. In his posthumous memoir, A Movable Feast, Hemingway gave an ultimate tribute to Hadley when he wrote,” “I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her” and perhaps finally gave her the credit she deserved for being the early inspiration behind the great success of Hemingway.