(Let me apologize in advance for a lengthy post today, but I have a lot to say about this book.)
Ernest Hemingway is my greatest literary obsession; I’ve certainly loved, and returned to, and reread, and studied other authors, but Hemingway has been the love of my reading life. Certainly, that was a large part of the appeal of this book: to come home to familiar and much-loved territory. We all know that feeling, I think: visiting an old neighborhood, hearing a song from one’s happy youth, telling old friends the same old stories of shared memories.
So, as I’ve said, part of the luxuriant pleasure of this book was all the intertwining threads of familiarity. I have recently been reading By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, a collection of his newspaper and magazines stories and dispatches, many from the Hadley era of his life. I’ve read 3 or 4 biographies, and piles of his novels and short stories, and nonfiction/memoirs like Death in the Afternoon (about the bullfights he saw) and A Moveable Feast (about his life in Paris with Hadley). And I just yesterday purchased The Garden of Eden, a novel published posthumously (and controversially edited by his surviving family), about a couple who becomes a triangle on the beaches of France and in Spain. I read it years ago but wanted to own my own copy. I remember really loving this book, although it’s surrounded by critical ambivalence and debate; this is where Hemingway most directly ventures into gender-changing, gender ambiguity, cross-dressing, bisexuality, threesomes… and all sorts of interesting and disturbing subjects linked by some biographers to Hemingway’s mother’s tendency to dress him up as a little girl when he was young. I find it all fascinating.
Hadley Richardson was Hemingway’s first wife; they married when he was just 22, and she was 29, and surprised at herself for landing such a vibrant, popular, ambitious young man. They took off for Paris quickly, and shared the early years of Hemingway’s career, including the publication of Three Stories and Ten Poems, In Our Time, and The Sun Also Rises, his first novel and the one that really launched his career. They also shared poverty and insecurity, a number of hardships, an unstable but scintillating circle of famous friends, and an unplanned pregnancy. Their story ends (I’m not giving anything away here, it’s history) when Hemingway begins an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who will be his second wife (who will be thrown over for the third, who will be thrown over for the fourth, who will hear the gunshot when he commits suicide just before his 62nd birthday).
So, as I’ve said, a large part of the joy of this book for me was sharing so intimately in the life of someone I feel I know well, and whose work I love. But there was a real danger there; for if it had been done badly or in poor taste (overly sentimental or maudlin, or vindictive towards Hem the womanizer) or inaccurately, imagine my upset! With this subject being so near to my heart, the standards were very high.
Paula McLain has my gratitude and admiration, because she’s done beautifully! This is a gorgeous novel. Her writing style (in Hadley’s voice, in first person) is a bit like Hemingway’s, although not quite so sparse. She paints pictures with short brush strokes. Hadley’s character is an interesting blend of strength and weakness (which is an observation she makes about Hem, too); she repeatedly bemoans her un-modern tendency to obey and bow to her difficult husband, compared with the women around her and their new-age relationship rules. She “lets him go” to Pauline without a fight, from the perspective of several mutual friends. But I think she maintains a certain dignity, and not just in her defeat at the deceitful Pauline’s hands. And at any rate, her voice is clear and authentic and emotionally revealing without being sappy. She seems to be honest with herself, and with the reader. In many ways this is a novel about a woman struggling to find and maintain her own identity in the unique setting of 1920′s expatriate Paris, and while being a loving wife and mother. In this sense it wouldn’t need to be about Hemingway; it’s a woman’s story, and it’s important without the celebrity. It reminded me a little of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, or The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham.
I loved how McLain (or Hadley) used some of Hemingway’s own rhetoric about truth and turned it back around on him. For example, on page 230, Hadley is dealing with her feelings about being completely left out of the book, The Sun Also Rises, when all the others present made it in as characters (none flattering):
I was incredibly proud of him and also felt hurt and shut out by the book. These feelings existed in a difficult tangle, but neither was truer than the other.
Hadley was a complex and mostly sympathetic character; I got frustrated with her here and there for not standing up for herself a bit more, but she was so authentic and real and human, I mostly was able to take her as she was. Hemingway was not so sympathetic, which is also very authentic and real. He was a cad towards the men and women in his life, pretty consistently. He was also very lovable, which is why so many men and women came back to him over and over for more fun and abuse. He was, as Hadley says on page 311,
such an enigma, really – fine and strong and weak and cruel. An incomparable friend and a son of a bitch. In the end, there wasn’t one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true.
Again with the truth of the thing, which Hem himself loved to cite.
What a work of art this book was, and how evocative of emotions. It was exhausting and cathartic. Is my reaction colored by my love of all things Hemingway? Yes. But my standards were also raised almost impossibly high, so please take me seriously when I give McLain an A+, and thank you, ma’am.