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Globe South Book Buzz

Hemingway’s young love

By Nancy Harris
August 4, 2011

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As the summer temperature soars and the beach towel and porch chair beckon, this is the time we are all looking for a truly good book.

Some of us think that a light romance novel or a plot-driven thriller is just what we need for that long, lazy summer afternoon, while others look for something with more depth and substance.

Finding the perfect balance in one book seems almost impossible, but if you’re looking for a poignant romance that offers both substance and sustenance, I have a book for you.

“The Paris Wife: A Novel,’’ by Paula McLain, is based on the true story of Ernest Hemingway and his marriage to Hadley Richardson, a “spinsterish’’ young woman from St. Louis.

Their marriage, which lasted from 1921 to 1926, was a tender and torturous romance - before the ambitious young writer achieved his fame - and was a relationship that he spoke of with great regret in his memoir “A Moveable Feast.’’

Drawing from biographies, love letters, and Hemingway’s novels, McLain blends fact and fiction to explore the inner workings of the courtship and marriage of Hemingway and the lovely, reclusive woman who fell passionately in love with him.

Told largely in Hadley’s voice, this luscious narrative describes two people drawn together by painful early histories, and eager to sample life’s richness.

When they met, Hadley was 28 and had spent many isolated years at home after a crippling childhood fall, and having nursed her dying mother. Ernest, then 21, had fled the grip of his controlling mother, and was already home from the Great War, where he had suffered agonizing wounds, both physically and psychologically. Traumatized, he couldn’t sleep without a light and needed large quantities of alcohol to quiet the memories.

The handsome, egocentric Hemingway is already something of a womanizer by this time, and is also something of a bully, quick with both his fists and at the bottle.

Yet Hadley sees beneath this brash exterior to the needy boy within, and from the beginning offers him unconditional love and support, McLain writes. While admittedly “old-fashioned,’’ Hadley is a generous and playful lover who recognizes Ernest’s creative talent, and willingly sacrifices her own ambitions to support his writing career.

The unlikely couple marry and move to Paris in 1921. Hadley describes the urgency and vitality of their literary and artistic expatriate world, which includes the likes of Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sherwood Anderson.

Hadley, the quiet and least “modern’’ woman of the group, shares her musings about the open marriages, mistresses, boozing, and womanizing of their circle, and foreshadows with some anxiety the eventual unraveling of her marriage to Ernest, despite his genuine love for her.

For those of us who think we already know everything about “Papa’’ Hemingway, “A Paris Wife’’ gives us the chance to learn more about his youthful character.

Hemingway’s raw talent, his desperate hunger to be recognized, and his unrelenting search for inner peace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle are revealed in such a loving way that, like Hadley, we too are swept up by the charismatic young writer.

By the end of “A Paris Wife,’’ we come to understand, if not forgive, the expansive needs and desires that ultimately led Hemingway to divorce Hadley and leave behind his baby boy, and marry three more times.

While there are some who will criticize McLain for the sometimes naive narrative voice attributed to Hadley, it is consistent with all that is known about her, as well as Hemingway’s description of this trusting, good-hearted, and even-tempered woman in “A Moveable Feast.’’

I think it’s to McLain’s credit that she manages so skillfully to transform the goodness, solidity, and potentially mundane character of Hadley Richardson into a heroine who is interesting and convincing, and whom we are continually eager to hear speak.

If the domestic dialogue between Ernest and Hadley raises fear that this is mere chick lit, then McLain’s splendid account of this period of history should calm it.

The writer re-creates postwar Paris in the 1920s and the euphoric, creative, and alcohol-infused energy of its expatriate culture. It is as if Paris and its cafe society become an intriguing character worthy of attention in itself.

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com.

“The Paris Wife: A Novel’’
By Paula McLain