I’ve always been super attracted to the Ex-Pats, boozing their blurry-eyed way through Paris in the 1920s. Falling into gutters and falling into beds. Being so so serious about this art thing and passing the salt and pepper to Gertrude Stein.
While listening to, yes listening to, Paula McLain’s bit of historical fiction The Paris Wife, I had a thought that I’ve never had in a decade and a half of consuming Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the like. It went like this: Why, these people are idiot ego-maniac twenty-somethings with no pause button on the old immediate gratification trigger.
This understanding doesn’t make this story, told mostly from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest’s first wife, any less delicious. I mean, I lap up a modern version of this bad behavior every week on “Jersey Shore.”
The story covers the Hadley-Ernest combo meal from first glances to the final phone call long after they have divorced. In between there is travel, a baby, and Hemingway’s first bursts of literary fame including the writing of The Sun Also Rises, which was taken right from the couple’s travels, although curiously omits any mention of Hadley, real or disguised. You get front row seats for the integration of the other woman, Pauline Pfeiffer, who worked her way into their daily life well into the affair, riding bikes with Hadley — who knew the score — and nooners with Ernest. She becomes his second of four wives.
It’s the stuff of A Moveable Feast, but from the sideline camera of a woman who is “just the wife.”
My goodness McLain does this well. She has captured the voices and brain waves of these characters in such a convincing way it was easy to forget the “fiction” label. The shifts in perspective to consider Hemingway’s struggles are a nice contrast. They are the ideas of a romantic who just can’t help himself. He’s torn between the woman he believes is his other half, and this sassy minx in smart coats who works in fashion.
Meanwhile, the scenes including F. Scott and Zelda are like all-star comedy disaster cameos. I missed this story when it was gone.