Today we’re discussing Paula McLain’s bestseller The Paris Wife. If you’ve read it, please join in the conversation, and if you’ve reviewed it, post a link to your review and we’ll dialogue. Be sure to read the reviews from Audra, Angela, and Emily as well!
Once again, I was surprised to find that this fictional narrative was based on the life of a real person. Last month we encountered the life of former First Lady Laura Bush in the character Alice Lindgren. This month, we entered the world of Paris during the 1920s, when famous authors and artists walked its streets. The story is of Hadley Hemingway, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. She is the Paris wife, as opposed to the other wives he would have in other cities and countries after their five-year marriage. But I’m jumping ahead.
They meet in 1920 when Hadley is 28 and Ernest is 19. They are immediately attracted to each other and, despite the difference in age and the discouragement of a few friends, they decide to marry. At this time, Ernest is a journalist, though absolutely determined to be a respectable writer. After being tipped by Sherwood Anderson that all of the best writers live in Paris, Ernest and Hadley decide to move there. They join the famous Paris society of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others.
Hadley and Ernest’s marriage is based on love; for the first few years, they could not be more crazy about each other. Yes, Ernest was always moody, impressionable, and energetic—but they were happy. However, surrounded by these free-spirited thinkers and with his reputation as an author growing exponentially, Ernest’s ideas of marriage are changed and shaped by their companions, while Hadley remains as steady as she has ever been.
One of the goals of this series is to answer these questions:
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
My friend made a great point about this book. She said that, really, their marriage had never been monogamous. Ernest had always had writing; that was his first real love. And Hadley over and over again agreed that she would never get in the way of his work.
Hadley notes early on in the story, “He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.”
At first, Ernest relies on Hadley’s sound opinions and wise advice to direct him in his writing; their conversations inspired him, and the freedom she gave him allowed him to write as much as he desired. Eventually, though, when her opinions no longer echoed what he felt, they grew apart. His attraction to Pauline was heavily influenced by the fact that she “got [him] talking, and telling her everything made it fresh again.” Eventually, though, he leaves Pauline as well. Hadley, Pauline, and his other wives were all second to his work.
Marriage is not a safe haven, although Hadley and Ernest both feel that they need each other when they enter into it. Hadley believes that Ernest is rescuing her, and that she is rescuing him, but ultimately this does not protect their marriage. The real question of their marriage lies in their commitment to it. She is 100% committed, but he allows other things to take priority over it.
Similar to Alice in American Wife, Hadley appears the self-sacrificing wife. She deeply loves Ernest, and she believes that giving up her own dreams is worth it if Ernest’s writing can succeed. She does struggle with jealousy, though:
“Ernest utterly supported my playing and often referred to the piano as my ‘work,’ as if I were an artist, too. I loved to play and felt it was very much a part of my life, but I wasn’t at all convinced I was special, as Ernest was. He lived inside the creative sphere and I lived outside, and I didn’t know if anything would ever change that. …We were here together now, I told myself. Everything was lovely and fine. I should just know it and hold on to it and be happy. I would. I would try.”
Hadley does try—valiantly. They go to Canada to have their son and plan to stay there for a year, but after a few months Ernest cannot stand having lowly assignments for a local paper, where he has made enemies. They decide to move back to Paris, even though they do not have the money. Hadley says, “I would scrimp and make do and not resent it at all because it was my choice in the end. I was choosing him, the writer, in Paris.”
Even Hadley’s decision to divorce Ernest is an act of self-sacrifice rather than vengeance; she knows that Ernest is not happy with her, and since she cannot accept the three of them living together, she wants to allow him to be happy otherwise.
What strikes me about this marriage is the difference between their goals: Hadley’s goal is to be loved; Ernest’s goal is to be a famous writer. I don’t think that Hadley ever betrayed herself by sacrificing her dreams of playing piano and living “freely,” because she did not love those dreams as much as she loved the dream of having a loving, traditional family. Every decision in her marriage to Ernest was shaped by this latter dream. In this way, Hadley differs from Alice, who struggled with differentiating between Alice “herself” and Alice “the wife.” I don’t think Hadley ever has that struggle; her struggle is that as a wife, she must compete with her husband’s first dream.
I had trouble sympathizing with Hadley, and I’m not entirely sure why. I certainly pitied her, and Ernest’s actions were horrific, but there was little tension within her. She gladly sacrificed for him, and in the end she got exactly what she wanted, though not with Ernest: a husband who adored her and loved Bumby.
What did you think?
During June we’re reading A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. I’ve heard great things about this book, so I’m thoroughly excited! Stay tuned!