Wednesday, June 22, 2011
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.