The Paris Wife/Paula McClain: Reflections

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sometimes I read what everyone else is reading. Always, I want to be persuaded. I want to see what it is that propels a big book forward. Get inside it, stand beside it, and marvel.

The Paris Wife has all the making of a great book.  Inspired by the author's read of A Moveable Feast, that great posthumously published Ernest Hemingway remembrance, and populated by the likes of Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein, The Paris Wife tells the story of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife—who she is, how she meets Hemingway, and what happens when the two decide to marry. It's familiar terrain, those Paris years—romantic, historic, impossible, made confused and confusing by large amounts of liquor and by allegiances, both professional and personal, that bent in upon themselves. I, like countless others, wrote a research paper on Fitzgerald and Hemingway as a teen. I was obsessed with these authors' books, wanted to pierce the alluring madness, wrote like one and then like the other, never gave up my Gatsby habit, cry every time I read The Old Man and the Sea. I was obsessed with Zelda and I have, at various times in my life, given myself over to Joyce, then over to Pound, then over to those parts of Gertrude that I have the brain cells to understand.

This is a book I should have loved.

I wanted, however, more than was here.  Less explication, perhaps, more alivedness on the page. Less chunking in of familiar history and more of that exquisite and also inexplicable thing that happens, say, in Monique Truong's The Book of Salt, which steals inside the Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas household by way of a Vietnamese cook.  Truong, with her novel, dares to imagine, dares to create a whole and surprising story that illuminates the past but is not so strictly beholden to it.  She reminds us that novels, in the end, are novels, not biographies, and so there is room to do far more than to place small wagers on undocumented in-bewteens.

In the case of The Paris Wife, we know, from the outset, what happens to Hadley (if not from our own reading, then from the author's opening pages).  It is imperative, then, that Hadley's inner life soar, that McClain go deep, that she surprise us, get to us, with the unanticipated detail, the original slice of talk, the something in the shadows, the something in the light. I kept looking for that, hoping for it, for this is such an admirable project and McClain herself is so entirely likable in the interviews I've heard and read.

But what, really, do I know?  The Paris Wife, like Nancy Horan's famous spurned wife story, Loving Frank, is a huge bestseller, much beloved by a vociferous crowd.  I have stood in the margins most of my life, and I recognize, always, that I look for other things in books than many do.  Might I suggest that there is room for us all.


Julie P. said...

I enjoyed this one a great deal and I'm sorry that you were disappointed. I do think you make some fantastic points in your post though. I wonder if my lack of familiarity with the "characters" made a difference in my enjoyment of the novel.

Lilian Nattel said...

There are big books I haven't enjoyed either. And I also know that there are books that you and I have both loved, and others that we've had different reactions to. There's room for everything. This book, though, doesn't sound like my cup of tea. I'm not that big generally on fictionalized accounts of real people, though there have been some exceptions, like The Golden Mean. But given that, I'm not likely to pick this one up.

Melissa Sarno said...

I haven't even heard of this book. Where am I living?
A former boss of mine is married to Monique Truong. She is an interesting person and, while I appreciated The Book of Salt, I am more intrigued by her second novel, which I haven't picked up yet, 'Bitter in the Mouth'. It seems to take more from her real life which, because I think she is an interesting person, sounds very good. Have you read it?
You should see Midnight in Paris if you like that period of time in Paris. I just wrote about it on my blog!

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