Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review Wednesday: The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

The Paris WifeThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Paris Wife made me remember why I love historical fiction so much. McLain not only captures the atmosphere, but she does it with striking prose. I was not surprised to learn she'd published a book of poetry prior to this.

I just finished this book and I'm a little overwhelmed by it, but I'll do my best to form coherent thoughts. First of all, I cannot stress enough what an amazing job the author did of capturing the atmosphere of post-war Paris. Not that I was there to experience it, but after reading this book, I feel like I was. Like I walked the streets, participated in the extravagance, the decadence, the debauchery, the fashions and fads of the time, the whiskey and wine, the cigarettes and smoke, the poverty and claustrophobia. The atmosphere of the book itself is enough to make me love it. And the fact that it's about a writer only made me adore it more. It made me want to be there, to throw myself into their world, to smoke and drink and ski and go fishing and fall in love and write a novel. The only thing it did not make me want to do was go to a bullfight, but that's only because I did not enjoy that experience myself. If I'd never been to one, I certainly would want to after reading McLain's novel.

Aside from the atmosphere, McLain also captures the personalities of her characters so well. I felt like I was Hadley while I read it. Her parts were so alive, so aching and beautiful. Hemingway's few sections were also wonderful, confused and tortured and with a quite distinct voice from his wife's. Even though I knew what was coming, I still held on with Hadley and ached for her, cried for her a few times, loved with her. Because who hasn't loved that man who is so wrong for you, but so swooningly right?

There were a few parts where it went so far I just cringed, too horrified to look but unable to stop. Like the part where the other woman gets in bed with them and Hadley just lies there while her husband makes love to his mistress. Also, the part where Hadley loses Ernest's manuscripts. Being a writer myself, it just knocked the breath out of me. That must be every writer's worst nightmare. I was literally gasping to breathe at how terrible it would be, and McLain does a wonderful job showing that, even through the eyes of the wife instead of the writer himself.

Hemingway is captured well, too. I understood his artist mentality very well. McLain takes an age old story (the struggling artist, a nobody, falls in love with another nobody, they get married, she stays in love while he gets famous and becomes somebody, and suddenly, his nobody wife isn't enough for him) and makes it stand out in all its tragedy and romance. This isn't a romance novel, but possibly the most romantic book I've ever read--not only in Hadley and Ernest's love, but in Paris, and the sweeping scope of the novel, the lavishness, the beauty of language and description and location, of each event, each chapter of their love affair. Even their demise is poignant and heartbreaking and messy, but rings with absolute truth.

In the epilogue, when it goes into the history of Ernest's family, I got a bit of a shock. Of course I knew of Hemingway's death, but when I didn't know about the rest of his family. It was so morbid, and tragic, and sad. I'm glad that Hadley lived a long and full life, despite the wild years of drinking and smoking and cavorting around Paris with her artist husband. And glad to learn that she went on to happiness, even if she couldn't help Ernest. Like so many tragic figures, you find that the ones who need help are the ones who refuse it the most vehemently. This novel does paint Hemingway in a very sympathetic light, despite his flaws and shortcomings.

Recommended for: anyone who's ever been in love, been betrayed, or been to Paris.

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