THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

Please note: My “Reading Reflections” are not reviews. They are simply my thoughts in response to certain passages.

The Paris WifeTruth be told, THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain is not the type of book I would have picked up on my own. A “biofic,” it might be called. But after seeing McLain at Books by the Banks last year, I wanted to know if her eloquence and enthusiasm translated to the page. (IMO, it did.) The story is told from the point of view of Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s first wife, and focuses on their years together. As a woman in a committed relationship, I did connect with Hadley, but to my surprise, I found myself drawn more strongly to Ernest himself. Despite his boorish behavior at times, he was a writer, an artist above all else, and his absolute, uncompromising conviction stirred a lot of emotion in me.

(As did his insecurities. And Hadley’s.)

As I read, I wondered if Andy would identify with Hadley to some degree too. They’re both highly sensible, yet with enough of an artistic sensibility to connect with their creative partners, and they both have to deal with supporting — indirectly enduring? — the unstable, untraditional path of a writer. Granted, I don’t get drunk or fight bulls like Hemingway did… but still. I know it isn’t easy.

Anyway, I highlighted the HECK out of this book, and it was extremely hard to choose which quotes to feature here. I may end up having to do a couple short follow-up posts, actually, but these will do for now.

The whole time he talked fast about his plans, all the things he wanted for himself, the poems, stories, and sketches he was burning to write. I’d never met anyone so vibrant or alive. He moved like light. He never stopped moving — or thinking, or dreaming apparently. (15)

I remember showing my writing journals to Andy for the first time. How vulnerable and exposed I felt, because here were all my innermost ideas, laid bare to be read, possibly judged. Each hastily scribbled line was a seed; whether it would bloom or not, I had no idea. This was not a beautiful garden so much as a vast field that I tended and watched with tentative hope.

Fortunately Andy didn’t say much. He just flipped pages slowly, taking it all in, taking me in, with a kind of reverence that I noticed and appreciated.

His mood was pretty low during this time. He’d gotten several more rejections on stories he’d sent to magazines, and it hurt his pride. It was one thing when he was writing part-time and having no success. But now he was devoted to his craft, working every day, and still failing. What did that mean for the future? (67)

Oy, do I feel this. When you’ve put everything on the line — your reputation, your fortune, your heart — you can’t help but feel it. I am so lucky and thrilled that I could afford to quit my job and pursue writing full-time. But I’m terrified too.

In our circle, everyone believed things would hit for him, and that it was only a matter of time. “You’re making something new,” Pound told him one day in his studio. “Don’t forget that when it starts to hurt.”

“It only hurts to wait.”

“The waiting helps you boil it down. That’s essential, and the hurting helps everything along in its way.” (127)

Patience really is the hardest part. Thank god for the people who believe in you.

Now, switching from the writing focus to the relationship bits…

“Let’s always tell each other the truth. We can choose that, can’t we?” (47)

I feel like that’s a good motto in any relationship, but in a marriage especially. The truth may not always be easy or pretty, but it’s the only foundation you can build anything long-term on.

I also liked to look around at the houses surrounding the park and wonder about the people who filled them, what kinds of marriages they had and how they loved or hurt each other on any given day, and if they were happy, and whether they thought happiness was a sustainable thing. (92)

Do you ever play this game? I know I do. I speculate about couples at restaurants and on the bus, about celebrity couples, about couples I actually know. It’s as if I think figuring out their problems will help me solve — or avoid — my own.

But the truth is, we can’t compare our relationships to anyone else’s. There’s so much that goes on within each person’s heart, head, and home that we never see.

It gave me a sharp kind of sadness to think that no matter how much I loved him and tried to put him back together again, he might stay broken forever. (100)

I felt that way about someone once. I don’t love him anymore, not in that way, but I still think of him from time to time, and wonder about him, and hope for him.

“Sometimes I wish we could rub out all of our mistakes and start fresh, from the beginning,” I said. “And sometimes I think there isn’t anything to us but our mistakes.” (220)

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14 Comments

  1. Interesting. I remember there was a biography of Hemingway in TV once, and it was weird to see “real” fictional versions of situations I was familiar with from fictional fictional stories.

    I’m glad to read about this book, but I don’t think I’ll read it. My first thought when I read this post was, “I wonder if it goes through his affair with Pauline and Hadley’s ultimatum.”

    That’s when I realized I already know more than I probably need to know about the various Hemingways. :-)

  2. And here all this time I thought you were a badass bullfighter!

    I love those last two quotes, especially the last one. I can totally relate to that.

  3. Sounds like a good book. Great quotations you’ve chosen. I reread *A Moveable Feast* recently and found it both stunning and devastating. Especially the way he writes about Hadley. My edition (Scribner 2009) has 17 versions of the first or last paragraphs. He couldn’t decide. They are about Hadley.

  4. I liked “the waiting helps you boil it down” line a lot. I know that for my novels, that is certainly true.

  5. This line is so beautiful, and it didn’t come from McClain or Hemingway: “This was not a beautiful garden so much as a vast field that I tended and watched with tentative hope.”

    I’ve got 20 pages left of the book I’m reading and then I’m starting The Paris Wife. Very excited after reading this post! I love Hemingway and loved reading A Moveable Feast when I lived in Paris. Will always remember him discreetly breaking the necks of pigeons in parks to bring home for dinner because they were so broke.

    And reading about all Hemingway’s rejections – how inspiring is that??

  6. Anthony-
    Lol well I knew nothing about Hemingway, so it was all new territory for me. The answer to your question, btw, is yes. :)

    Sherrie-
    Jewel thief, not bullfighter. ;)

    Lucy-
    Iiiinteresting. THE PARIS WIFE does give some indication that perhaps his feelings about Hadley were… unresolved. Regardless, I definitely want to read A MOVABLE FEAST and THE SUN ALSO RISES now.

    Meghan-
    Aw, thank you. *blushes* I can’t wait to hear what you think of the book, especially as someone who has also lived in Paris.

  7. I would recommend reading The Sun Also Rises first. I always prefer reading the books that were finished and published during his lifetime, where you know that this is what he intended. With the other ones (and there are a lot of them at this point), it’s like seeing raw movie footage. (Posthumous editing is a subject which could be a whole blog post.)

    I gather from Wikipedia that the version of A Movable Feast which Lucy read is different from the one I read several decades ago. Still worth reading (I should dig my copy out), but The Sun Also Rises is (IMHO) Hemingway’s best novel. (I wonder if The Paris Wife mentions how Hadley felt about her being left out of the book, though she was present for most of the events described.)

  8. Oh, and by coincidence there’s a reference to The Sun Also Rises in the first paragraph of Part Two of my current story. It just seemed to fit. :-)

  9. The answer to your question (about Hadley’s feelings) again is yes.

  10. Les

    It’s on my list but god knows I barely have time to read anything at all lately :(

  11. Comment for Lee – I reread The Sun Also Rises this summer, too. I was on a Hemingway kick, I guess. I read it right after A Moveable Feast. Yes – my version of A Moveable Feast is different from the one I got a ‘Shakespeare and Company’ in Paris, in 1992.

    One of the things I find fascinating about The Sun Also Rises is that it was Hemingway’s first novel. So, reading it with the lens of ‘how do you write a novel?’ makes an interesting perspective.

    Something I find equally fascinating about A Moveable Feast is that Hemingway is writing these memories at the end of his life, possibly at the height of his craft, yet he chooses to focus on the freshest and greenest days of his writing life. It was easy for me to forget as I read it that it wasn’t at all ‘real time,’ but filtered through 4 decades of living, writing, and reflecting. And even then, the result that we have is slippery, as evidenced by the many versions.

    Gosh, I’ve gone a bit. I think I’ll now go reread both.

  12. Lucy-
    Loooove your point about A MOVEABLE FEAST – writing about the beginning at the end. Btw, THE PARIS WIFE has some interesting scenes with Ernest writing THE SUN ALSO RISES.

  13. Jon

    Hmm…I really liked that final quote, because it’s true, our mistakes kind of define us. I may have to pick up The Paris Wife.

  14. Great review! May have to check this one out!

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