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The Paris Wife: A Novel

The Paris Wife - Paula McLain When I turned the last page and sat down to write the review, I was unsure of where to begin. It was such an easy book to read, and yet, I felt almost sad that it had ended. I wanted more. I had been given a glimpse into the lives of two people struggling to survive and succeed. The pages turned themselves, but when it came time for me to sum it up, I was lost in the tragedy of it and had to sit and think about the story in its historic fiction context, pull myself back to the reality and remember it was not an accurate tale of their love, but rather a story about it. I had to remove myself from it because it moved me profoundly. I kept asking myself, how could two people be so in love and wind up in such a destructive relationship after having what seemed like perfection to all outsiders?
Elizabeth Hadley Richardson fell in love, madly, with Ernest Hemingway who was 9 years her junior, when she was in her late twenties. Ernest was just a young boy then, barely 20, who had many demons within him. He was a troubled soul who saw awful things during the war, as a very young man of 18, or perhaps we might even consider him a boy then. He could not forget those memories and they lived on in his nightmares and daily thoughts and when he sank too low, Hadley pulled him back up again into the real world. Hemingway and Richardson shared a beautiful but ill-fated love. There was a magic in their relationship that drew them together and eventually split them asunder.
Hadley, as she was called, was Ernest’s stability, his lifeline. He was unstable, emotionally and physically scarred from his time as a soldier. He hated decadence but settled easily into that lifestyle as he became more and more well known. Hadley, never really changed, she had simple, basic taste in all things, and she really only wanted to be loved by Ernest and to keep her family happily together, safe and sound. She kept him centered and focused. He kept her always wondering but also happy, if not secure, within his world. She was perhaps more patient and staid then most women of the time and put up with far more of Ernest’s indiscretions than most women would have, but she was truly and blindly in love with Hem. Their circle of friends did not provide the best moral or ethical environment for them and seemed to encourage infidelity and disloyalty which came very easily to Ernest who was a quick study in all things.
Hem liked to push all envelopes, needed danger, needed to face fear and even death, so that he could prove he was alive. He loved his Cat, Hadley, but he loved himself more. Cat was happy merely to be in Tatie's presence, but he was only happy with success and new adventures. He needed more each time and she needed nothing, she needed less. She was always content so long as he was there loving her and he was more discontented, searching for the next height to conquer.
For perhaps five years, as a married couple, they lived mostly in Europe, in Paris, and traveled a great deal. Bumby was born and although they had some rocky roads, they weathered them and had kismet until Pauline came on the scene and whittled away at their perfect world. She literally stole Ernest away and did it cleverly and happily, maintaining a friendship with both of them, much of the time. It was a kind of ménage a trois. She was the true “designing” woman, supposedly guileless, but she was surely not clueless.
When Cat and Hem divorced, he married Pauline. I think, though, they both continued to love each other until the end of their days but they both went on to find love in other places after they were no longer together. She found a more stable kind of love and life, far different from the loose, drinking kind of life she had shared with Hemingway. He found that he needed to constantly search for love again and again and never again found that same stability that he shared with her. I was left with the impression, in the end, that he knew he had lost the one true love and anchor in his life when he lost his Cat.
There lives were bohemian, their apartment and clothing were shabby, their ideas about love and sex and life were “out there” and not traditional. They pushed the envelope. They mixed with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce-and so many others before and after he achieved some fame-such iconic names were part of their lives and mentored him. Cat was with him for his first success and he remained in touch with her, although infrequently, throughout the rest of his life and many marriages, until he took his own life in the same way her father and his father did, with a bullet. He achieved success but never true happiness and contentment. There were so many suicides in his family that one would think perhaps it was a genetic instability that he suffered from all his life. Although it is a novel, it really feels as if it was written directly from a diary or letters. I really enjoyed reading it and highly recommend it.