Something must be in the air, because I have encountered more references to 1920s Paris in the past, say, six months than I think I ever have. Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is probably the most high profile of these references, but "Paris in the Twenties" is also used in Lynn Coady's The Antagonist as a kind of shorthand for a debaucherous, productive, rollicking good time. That these references are coming to us at more or less the same time must mean something triggered the artists at a similar moment, although I can't for the life of me think what. Anyway, although Gabe does get to visit 1920s Paris in the Woody Allen film, it is an idealized version that services his nostalgia – and the boys in The Antagonist don't even make it to France – Paula McClain's latest novel The Paris Wife is not only set mostly in 1920s Paris, but also in the heart of its artistic movement, as seen from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway's first wife Hadley.
I know some general stuff about Hemingway from having read a few of his novels, a great New Yorker profile, and (embarrassingly, perhaps) having watched Love and War, the Sandra Bullock, Chris O'Donnell movie about Hemingway's First World War service, injury, and subsequent romance and heartbreak at the hands of his nurse. The movie is not good, but the basic biographical information is fairly sound. All of this is to say that, while I know a little, I'm no expert or superfan, and you don't need to be either to enjoy McClain's novel.
The story opens with Hadley in Chicago, visiting an old friend and allowing herself to be sucked in to the crazy parties of the Prohibition-era. She's there from St. Louis, where she lives with her sister and, although she doesn't quite see herself as a spinster, at 28 she's still single and not especially young. But in Chicago, she meets Hemingway, who seems interested and then maybe not. They dance, she reads one of his short stories and tells him she likes it, she watches him box with a friend in the living room, and her friend warns her that he is a man who loves women, all women, and she should be careful. Still, she lets him take her to the train station at the end of her visit and, when he promises to write, she reciprocates.
Back in St. Louis, life is quiet and dull, but as Hemingway's letters start pouring in Hadley finds herself becoming more and more attached to him, distancing herself from her life in favour of dreams for the future. When Hemingway starts talking about going to Rome, she feels deflated, already left behind. Then she gets a letter inviting her to come along, as his wife. From there, things happen very quickly. They're married and live in Chicago for a while before Sherwood Anderson tells them that it's Paris they want, not Rome. They save their money, book passage, and set off.
Even though I know about Jazz Age Paris, it is nonetheless kind of incredible to imagine the interactions. Hemingway – mostly before he was famous – F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, the Surrealists, and many other poets and artists who were important to their time but have since been forgotten. It's easy to romanticize this period, but McClain shows incredible restraint in her portrayal. For Hadley, Paris is both a good time and a very difficult place to be. Everyone recognizes Heminway's genius, she says, but Hadley is religated to the role of the wife, shuffled out of intellectual conversations into the spouse's corner of tea and cakes and domesticity. The Hemingways have no money, of course, and although Ernest can roll around town in a dingy artist's uniform of old jeans and a tatty sweatshirt, Hadley feels unstylish and dowdy in her old clothes and simultaneously envious of the fashionable women around her and guilty of wanting more. When Ernest doesn't find success right away and is forced to start working as a correspondent for the Toronto Star – sometimes leaving Hadley alone for weeks while he goes to report on conferences or conflicts in other countries – she becomes even lonelier and more despondent.
Of course, it isn't all doldrums – there are holidays for skiing and bull fighting, for example – but as the years go by, and they have a son, Hadley becomes increasingly insecure in their marriage. Ernest stays out longer, spends time with beautiful, intelligent, and worldly women, and Hadley fears she cannot keep up. Despite the reassurances from friends that theirs is a marriage to aspire to, Hadley is nervous. Unfortunately, the one person she should have been wary of – her close friend Pauline – is the one person she trusts, and also the one who ruins everything. The simple suggestion that Hadley is Hemingway's first wife is enough to suggest that there were a few (four, actually), but that doesn't make the betrayal and heartbreak any easier to read about. On the one hand, Hadley seems like a bit of a pushover, but on the other, she is a woman watching her world crash down with no idea where to turn for a way out. It's devastating, but not sentimental, and that's what makes it so crushing.
At the end of the novel, McClain explains that, although this is fiction, she worked very hard to stay true to the actual historical accounts of things. As far as I can see, for example, she didn't change anything major to fit her story. More than that, though, there's an echo of Hemingway's own clipped, unadorned style to her writing, which lends a sense of authenticity to her novel. Hadley is a charming and complex character, and her McClain does a beautiful job of showing you what Hemingway would have seen in her, without needing to tell you. For all that, though – much like Helen Humphries' The Reinvention of Love, also set mostly in Paris, about the affair of Victor Hugo's wife – this novel just increased my (previously rather low) interest in Hemingway, making me want to read about all his wives and his accounts of his life in Paris. In the meantime, though, I've once again found myself thinking about Paris, and what a strange and beautiful and varied city it really is.
The Paris Wife
by Paula McClain
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Doubleday Canada edition)