THE PARIS WIFE
By Paula McLain
Ballantine, $25, 336 pages
An arresting moment occurs 20 pages into Paula McLain's novel "The Paris Wife," a book that is making its way up several best-seller lists. The narrator, Hadley Richardson, recounts "the cold morning in February when a single shot rang through the house. My mother heard it first and snapped awake, knowing instantly what had happened." Hadley is already enamored of a handsome would-be writer eight years her junior named Ernest, so the reader may find himself mentally fast-forwarding to the summer of 1961 when Hemingway, internationally acclaimed, died by his own hand.
That his first wife should have spent her adolescence in a home shadowed by depression and suicide before being married to the famed bad boy who later took his own life is intriguing. It immediately establishes one of the strengths of this book, which is its willingness to grapple with emotional complexity.
The details of the young Hemingways' life in Paris and travels to Spain, Austria and the South of France are colorful, their friendships with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald intriguing, but the basic drama of this story is of two young people trying to figure out who they are, what they want from each other and what each of them can reasonably expect to give. The reader knows from the outset that their marriage, for all its early tenderness and charm, is not destined to last.
Ms. McLain has done her homework in terms of events that can be established. In 1920, Ernest Hemingway was, as portrayed here, an aspiring young journalist recovering from serious injuries received in Italy during World War I and the emotional fallout of a failed romance with a nurse there. Hadley, too, was recovering - from childhood with an overprotective mother, her father's suicide, the death of a loved elder sister in a house fire and years spent nursing her mother.
The two met at the home of one of Hadley's friends and, after brief correspondence and visits and some hesitance on her part because of the age difference, they married. In 1922, with a trust fund and further inheritance of Hadley's to support them, they moved to Paris.
Unlike these facts, the words that passed between the two as they lived together and got to know each other cannot be known. Did he really tell her, early on, "I can do anything if I have you with me. ... I think I can write a book"? Did he persuade her to move to Paris, saying he wanted to "follow the current"? Did he suggest that she cut her hair as he let his grow so that "before you know it we'll look just the same, we'll be the same guy"?
Did she reflect later, as the fictional Hadley does, that her impression as a bride that, indeed, she and her mate could collapse into and become each other was the flawed thinking at the heart of their doomed relationship?
Certainly the halting steps of Hadley's disenchantment ring true - the warning of her best friend; her jealousy that her husband cares at least as much about his work as he does about her; her longing for a child and a more conventional life, even as they are spending rowdy evenings together in bars and weeks and months in Spanish hotels or on the French Riviera; her disappointment when Ernest elects to skewer one of his closest friends with a cruel parody of his work; and her slowly dawning certitude that he is romantically involved with someone else and that the someone else is one of her close friends.
It is a tribute to the writer's ability that the reader's sympathies shift back and forth between the two parties. Both contribute to the mounting tension between them, though by the end of the marriage most readers are likely to have taken sides (and not with him).
The book's bittersweet ending takes place 35 years later when, out of the blue, Hadley gets a phone call from Ernest. The concept of "closure" as the happy - or at least bearable - ending to traumatic or tragic events has, in our day, been cheapened by overuse, but it does, sometimes, occur. Whether or not the real Hadley and Ernest achieved it is impossible to know. It would be satisfying to think it occurred as it does here, with at least one broken heart mended and at least some error acknowledged.
The advantage of fiction, of course, is that it can straighten out skeins of experience that in life often remain knotted, it can turn pain and sadness and human failing into an elegant, satisfying and tidily complete story.
Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.
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