I love Ernest Hemingway. I have since I was in the 7th grade. It was then I first watched In Love and War, a mediocre film about Ernest Hemingway’s ill-fated love affair with his nurse Agnes von Kurowsky during WWI. Starring the dashing Chris O’Donnell (whom I still love) as Hemingway, the movie made me think that Papa was the author for me. He was emotional, he was cute. Twelve year old Liz swooned.
The first Hemingway novel I read was A Farewell to Arms. Even at 12 I knew that this Hemingway was not the Hemingway of my dreams. He was not the romantic I’d hoped he would be. A Farewell to Arms was not a novel about love, really; it was a novel about loss and war and the way people are changed. I spend the summer between 7th and 8th grade reading the entire Hemingway oeuvre, and I mean the ENTIRE collection (even The Torrents of Spring, even Across the River and Into the Trees). At $12 and $14, they were the most expensive books I’d ever purchased, and I saved every week’s allowance to buy a new one. I was obsessed, even though I knew I didn’t always “get it” (Jake was impotent?! Didn’t figure that one out till college!).
So when I read in O Magazine (don’t judge) that Paula McLain had written a novel from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first “Paris wife,” I was pumped. McLain’s novel would come out a few weeks before I took 20 delightful students to Paris. It was Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald who’d first made me love Paris–what a perfect plane book!
Unfortunately, I did not like The Paris Wife. I wanted to. I really, really wanted to. I just didn’t. For starters, Hadley is, as McLain paints her, incredibly boring. Particularly against the vibrant backdrop of 1920’s Paris, Hadley is painfully old-fashioned (as she never tires of reminding us). When she and Ernest first meet, she remarks that Henry James is her favorite author (possibly the only author she’s read? That part was obnoxiously unclear) and he points out that “no one reads Henry James anymore.” This anecdote is brought up again and again and is meant to remind us that Hadley, with her dowdy clothes and stubborn resistance to flapper culture, is not like the rest of the women in Paris. She’s “different,” and that’s why Hemingway likes her so much.
But as a narrator, there’s so little to like. Particularly because of McLain’s style. Through Hadley, McLain does her best Hemingway impression, using his phrases (simple, lovely, true) and style (oh how I love short, staccato sentences). The problem is that Hadley is not Ernest and McLain is no Hemingway. She neither fully commits to Hemingway’s ice burg style of writing, nor creates a three-dimensional character in Hadley. Because of this, Hadley is uninteresting and the prose often sags. There were great swaths of the book I wanted to skip, not because I wasn’t interested in the plot but because I couldn’t take McLain’s halfway style.
I so wanted to love The Paris Wife. I’ve read several excellent accounts of her life, and her appearances in A Moveable Feast are some of my favorite vignettes. Unfortunately, McLain doesn’t do her justice. I was glad to see Hadley given her day in the sun, I just wish McLain had not tried to write her as Hemingway and instead given her her own voice. That would have been a delight.
On the plus side, I’m totally into rereading Hemingway’s short stories again. And possibly watching In Love and War.