“I’m not sure I get it completely, but I can tell you’re a writer. Whatever that thing is, you have it.” These were the words Hadley Richardson said to a young Ernest Hemingway in Paula McLain’s the fictionalized account of Hemingway’s life in The Paris Wife.
“God that’s good to hear,” Hemingway responded. “Sometimes I think all I really need is one person telling me that I’m not knocking my fool head against the bricks. That I have a shot at it.”
“You do. Even I can see that.”
I dog-eared that page when I read it, because sometimes I need to hear it, too. And if Ernest Hemingway felt that way, then maybe I have a chance.
The Paris Wife is so named because Ernest and Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, lived primarily in Paris during their marriage. Hadley stood by Ernest’s side when he met and befriended Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and others of the so-called “Lost Generation.” Their marriage, though short-lived, endured the formative years of Hemingway’s career, and Hadley could be credited with much of his later success because of her support. Early in the book, though, we realize that their relationship won’t last, that it couldn’t last. “It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking,” Hadley said as the narrator of the book. “I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. 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.”
While the book is fictionalized, most of the stories and characters are straight out of the pages of Hemingway history. McLain wove into conversations some of the great quotations that are attributed to the famed author: “I want to write one true sentence,” Ernest said to Hadley in the story. “If I can write one sentence, simple and true, every day, I’ll be satisfied.” After Gertrude Stein criticized one of his early novels, we see her advising Ernest, “When you begin over, leave only what’s truly needed.” And when we read Hemingway today, we are still haunted by his style that does only that.
The allure of the Paris years and the Lost Generation are stripped down in McLain’s novel. The excess of the gilded 20s, the jealousy among those who were trying to make a name for themselves, and the betrayal of and by members of this closely connected group leave the reader feeling more sorry for these famed authors rather than envious. At the same time, the talent pooled among this small group is undeniable, and their influence lives one.
About midway through the novel, McLain, speaking through Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway, hints at the driving principle of this book, indeed of Hemingway’s life.
“I’m thinking it [his next novel] should start in Paris and then move. It’s what happens in Paris that fuels the fire. You can’t have the rest without it.”
“You always said you couldn’t write about Paris because you were too close to it.”
“Yes, I know, but for some reason it’s coming easily. We were in Pamplona two weeks ago, but I can write that, too. I don’t know why. Maybe all of my thoughts and rules about writing are just waiting to be proven wrong.”
“It’s good to be on fire, isn’t it?”
“I hope it goes on like this forever.”
Of course, nothing goes on forever. Not in this life. And that line, that line about forever, marks the beginning of the end of the story. Not just the end of McLain’s novel, but the end of Hadley and Ernest, the end of Paris.
Maybe that truth about forever also marked the beginning of the end for Ernest himself, all the way back in Paris.
“Chasing your past is a lousy, rotten game, isn’t it?” McLain’s Ernest asked after a visit to Italy where he had been wounded during World War I.
“Memory couldn’t be counted on. Time was unreliable and everything dissolved and died—even or especially when it looked like life. Like spring,” McLain’s Hadley recounted. “All around us, the grass grew. Birds made a living racket in the trees. The sun beat down with promise. From that moment forward, Ernest would always hate the spring.”
Read and Respond
I love to read words almost as much as I like to write them. Sometimes, I get to do both by reading a book and writing about it: read and respond. It starts when a book captures my imagination. Usually I write about the books that change my life, or at least my heart. They are reviews, recommendations, and ways to connect with what I read.
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