My mind was suddenly such a hive of unanswerable questions that I had to smile at myself.
Before reading The Paris Wife, I thought I would never be able to name a single book that I would be confident enough to call my favourite. There, in about 380 pages of love and parties and all things bohemian, vintage and chic, I found myself being fed by paragraphs of which almost every single one might be a perfect quotation of a great virtue. I even wish I could learn it by heart, word by word!
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a shy twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness when she meets Ernest Hemingway and is captivated by his energy, intensity and burning ambition. After a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for France. But glamorous Jazz Age Paris, full of artists and writers, fuelled by alcohol and gossip, is no place for family life and fidelity. Ernest and Hadley’s marriage begins to founder, and the birth of a beloved son only drives them further apart. Then, at last, Ernest’s ferocious literary endeavours bring him recognition – not least from a woman intent on making him her own...
Hemingway, love and the passion to write, his first wife Hadley and Paris in the early twentieth century were all more than just details that made me thought of this book as a must-read. Having read Hemingway, I was sure he is a fine author. I admired his simplicity and thought of him as a man of honour. But who would have thought that I would change my mind so much about him after having read The Paris Wife. And so when I was half through with it, I knew that a lot can be said about it, about the theme of love, about the characters and time which never stops to tick.
The intensity, which made things work quickly for Hadley and Hemingway, was unbelievable. The immediate attraction that had hit both of them when they met for the first time was fascinating. Spending days among mutual friends did not interfere with the ability to find their own time, just for themselves. Hemingway being brave and targeted, stubborn and sceptical, and Hadley being shy and noticeably confused in some situations …looking at my feet to hide my blushing…, together they looked like the perfect couple. And the doubtful look from Kitty, his former love, Hadley’s friend, was not strong enough to come between, what they then seemed to be, the true soul mates.
What they shared at the beginning was inexplicably beautiful. From witty punch lines to signs of devotion, from light flirt and mutual interest towards each other to conversations, deep and meaningful. Giving each other the same nickname, they married to become an amazing tandem, to enjoy what life has to offer, to go on trips, to provide each other with what is safe and honest, yet exciting and breathtaking.
Hadley, being different from other Parisian women, stood out with her simplicity and reserved character. And even though she never saw or felt Paris as her home, she stayed and never complained, she stayed strong for her love. For my part, I felt utterly stuck and conspired against. This was not my world. These were not my people and they were drawing Ernest in and in with every passing day. What could I do or say? Hemingway, on the other hand, took care of their circle of friends, having everyone glamorous, artistic in one way or another. Even though the couple often had to face financial difficulties, they were living in a society of great minds and they always had enough for the most essential things in their lives – desire, booze and cigarettes.
What I liked best about Hadley is her pure heart. Perfect as wife, perfect at taking care of family, and whatever household they lived in at the given time, Hemingway himself admitted that she is too good for him. Despite being naïve and often blinded by love itself, she also possessed characteristics of being fair and reasonable. Hadley knew when to leave him at peace and let him rest. She knew when his mind, heart and soul belonged only to his work and the process of writing; she understood that she should not disturb him at those special moments. Hadley admired him to the bone and did not mind remaining in his shadow. Hemingway, however, was able to charm everyone who had an open mind, his spontaneity and adventurous spirit, bravery and boldness impressed many. Not forgetting about how pleased and happy I was to read and notice what honest conversations a man can lead and not be afraid to speak his mind, yet remain mysterious. But for Hadley it was never a problem as she was able to read his face expressions and, by looking at them, tell what he thought, what he wanted or needed. Despite the differences, they thought of themselves as a whole, the same person never to be torn.
I could not notice any flaws in their characteristics. Having their time wherever they were, sticking side by side while being independent, they added to each other’s character. But then chapters 17 and 18 came and my opinion was changed completely. I was not able to keep reading with the same feeling as before, now I felt a disturbing thrill. They had let drama appear in their lives, and not a pleasant one. These chapters had come to me as a twist and if before I was reading with a constant smile on my lips, then now my expression had changed and I could hear my own mind yelling at Hadley and later coursing Hemingway. If you decide to be supporting, if you know Hemingway needs his space and that he is a wild one, always going for adventures and that he seeks thrill and excitement which makes blood run faster, and that widening his range of experience and knowledge in order to become more skilled and wiser as it improves his work, why, Hadley, why did you need to throw a scene and act irrationally? You can miss him and his loving, but you should also have some belief in yourself, keep up with your own spirit and independence and depend on yourself rather than on him only. I was very disappointed and felt let down by her.
Hemingway, however, earned my negative thoughts by cheating on his wife while being in Turkey. Does it really take only one argument for decisions like this one to be made? This is when I started to doubt my respect towards Hemingway. Even though he does not want to hurt her, he would rather die than let Hadley know what had happened. It was his choice to betray her in such way and I could not feel sorry for his sorrow. You think, you always think before making the wrong step, especially when you actually know for yourself that it really is the wrong thing to be done. However, the main thing which really lowered my expectations of Hemingway is that, if not for the silly argument before leaving, what happened in Turkey never would have happened, I believe.
Hadley never got to know about Hemingway’s experience in Turkey. They kept on holding on to each other, loving each other, showing their affection, attending events and enlarging their circle of friends. They met some of the most amazing authors, poets, painters, journalists, publishers. They made others jealous because of how wonderful they looked and were together, they suited one another and were considered to have the ideal relationship, an example to others. And this is another good thing about The Paris Wife. It adds to your knowledge about culture and society. As you read you feel like experiencing the same things, feelings as the characters mentioned, and that is how you get to know them better in a more personal way. They become people you’ve known for ages, your friends, enemies, acquaintances, neighbours. They become familiar.
And then they were introduced to Pauline. Well educated, glamorous, always positive and energetic, charming and chic. She was ecstatic as she wore everything what is elegant. Being close friends with Hadley, and always encouraging and supporting her husband when it came to his work, her best quality, in Hemingway’s eyes, was her ability to defend her opinion, give reasons and examples, have an answer to every question. Pauline always had something to say or add, and always it was exactly what Hemingway wanted and expected to hear.
Having spent loads of time with the Hemingways, Pauline fell for Hadley’s man and it was not in vain as Hemingway’s heart developed the same warm feelings towards her. Warm feelings which grew into love. It took some time for Hadley to notice what had been going on between them and draw the conclusion that her life was going down the spiral.
And I must go back to Hemingway who proved himself as a coward by thinking that it was okay not to say anything to Hadley. He actually got angry with his wife when she confronted him; his reason being that she should not have said what she knew out loud. …I wanted it straight out and clean with no waffling or evasion. But what was I supposed to do? His silence was as much as an admission that he was in love with her, but somehow he’d turned it all back on me so that the affair wasn’t the worst thing, but that I’d had the very bad taste to mention it. What a childlike way of reacting! It was his own fault that he had kept going on with the affair without thinking how the situation should be solved and to what will it lead. From reading his work, I imagined him as someone who always had it thought out. And if not having it already thought out, then as someone who would manage to find the right solution quickly enough. And if not that, then as someone who is brave enough to speak for his own actions, not running away from them, hiding and refusing to accept the current situation, no matter how tangled it may be.
It is explained in the book how he followed Pauline’s lead and played along without being able to refuse or stop, or resist her. He loved her, but he also loved Hadley, and this is what I can understand and do not blame Hemingway. You cannot tell your heart what to feel. However, his inability to clear things out was surprising. Especially because being a writer, he was supposed to find the right words that would help him understand himself better.
Hemingway’s weakness made everyone feel terrible, depressed and suicidal. He wanted to shoot himself, Hadley considered drowning herself, while Pauline felt confused because of betraying her best friend – Hadley. More and more scenes were thrown as there was no order, everything seemed to be a mess as no one was happy. However, Hemingway did not solve the drama, instead he did not mind having them both at the same place, same hotel, same room, same bed. Hadley wanted to remain strong and make it through the blue days even though it felt like she was just a meaningless feature living on ruins. Pauline, on the other hand, was cheeky enough to keep hanging with the still married couple. She did her best to have Hadley’s friendship, yet still shared passionate moments with Hemingway. Nothing made her stop, she knew what she wanted and she fought for it by trying to convince her lover to have a divorce. Which actually would make a lot of sense, considering that what was lost between him and Hadley could never be returned in place.
This is where Hadley’s naivety enters. She hoped he would change his mind, for she knew he still loved her. Hadley also knew that she is not able to compete with someone as bold as Pauline, however, she still felt like she was the only one who was able to relate to Hemingway in a way no one else could. I wonder, was it really love or desperation which Hadley possessed? There were so many signs, so many hints which emphasized the occurrence of gaps in their marriage. The way he had completely ignored her and had paid all of his attention to other people in social events, how he included everyone in one of his books, but Hadley. Hemingway never explained what he did anymore. The conversations they led had become very simple and cold, careless. But they still loved each other.
The end of their love story implies the divorce for which Pauline had asked for, Hadley herself suggested that they should stop the theatre and confessed that she had become too tired of fighting and quarrelling. Hemingway did marry Pauline, but then divorced her after giving her two sons. He never settled and ended up shooting himself.
Hadley was lucky to have married a man not as impulsive. She was always sure about his love and never had any doubts about it. However, Hadley never stopped caring for Hemingway. She admired him as an author, and was happy to be part of some of his work.
It is interesting how this book is a biography of so many. You notice how realistic is every piece of Hemingway’s work. You travel the world with him and you know that the most if what is written is real not only in your mind and heart as you read it, but in his too, as well as in that torero’s or Zelda’s. Not forgetting to mention that The Paris Wife can provide you with answers to your questions about places, about great artists, well known nowadays, about love and romance, excitement. About family and caring, trust, loyalty and honesty. About leading bohemian lifestyle, about Paris, about the 20th Century.
“Tell me, do you think we wanted too much from each other?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Tatie. It’s possible.”
“Maybe that’s it. We were too hooked into each other. We loved each other too much.”
“Can you love someone too much?”
He was quiet for a moment and I could hear static coming through the line, a low crackle that seemed to stand for every sharp thing that had become between us. “No,” he finally said, his voice very soft and sober. “That’s not it at all. I ruined it.”
By the call he had made many years later, he showed his regret. He apologized by admitting that he was to blame for ruining the happiness they were supposed to share. And that made me realize that this book does not give an answer to one question particularly. How much does it take for one to understand and see what should never be lost? Or is right to have it as a never-ending game, a contradiction? Knowing he was suffering pained me. That’s the way love tangles you up. I couldn’t stop loving him, and couldn’t shut off the feelings of wanting to care for him – but also I didn’t have to run to answer his letters. I was hurting too and no one was running to me.
After all, isn’t love the art of accepting? That is when you feel free, comfortable, interested, supported, understood. Just like F. S. Fitzgerald and his Zelda. Both half mad, they liked and praised each other for what they were. Scott stripped and followed her, but he’d barely reached the outcropping when she let out an Indian cry and plunged off. There was a terrible moment when we wondered if she’d killed herself, but she bobbed to the surface and gave an exhilarated laugh. The moon was very bright that night and we could easily see the shapes their bodies made. We could also hear more wild laughter as Zelda clambered up to do it again. Scott had a go at it too, both of them drunk enough to drown.
Nevertheless, I know there are many who can relate to the book and find the theme with all of its problems and incidents to be familiar enough.. So before you take your next piece of Hemingway, read The Paris Wife and dare to take up with a different point of view.
But when I wake again, he wrote, the sentences are there waiting for me, shouting to be set down. It’s extraordinary, Tatie. I can see the end from here and it’s something.