Sunday, January 15, 2012

Young Hemingways in Love and in Paris

I've spent the last 10 days reading Paula McLain's The Paris Wife.  My friend, our school's one remaining librarian, told me that it had gotten lots of good reviews and that readers across the nation really seemed to like it.  The premise was interesting:  the young Hemingways, before fame, in love and in Paris. 

The story of Hadley Hemingway, Ernest's first wife, was interesting enough to keep me coming back to the book, but the book wasn't interesting enough that I couldn't put it down--thus the fact that it took me almost 10 days to finish this book that's not exactly dense and challenging.  It's one of those kind of books that makes me glad to be alive during the first decades of the 21st century, instead of being a woman in the 1920's in Paris.

We may tend to view that time and place through a sentimental lens, but McLain deftly shows us the challenging--and difficult--aspects of actually living during that time.  We see Hemingway writing his great works by candlelight--yes, candles!  In one of the most wrenching (for me as a writer) moments of the book, Hadley loses a satchel that contains everything that Hemingway has ever written; she leaves it unguarded on the train, and someone steals it.  And because he wrote it by hand, before we had copying machines and external hard drives and all the things that make it possible for us to have multiple back-ups, it was simply gone.

I also noticed that travel of any kind of distance was a grueling and time-consuming endeavor.  I often forget what a miracle the airplane is; I tend to focus on the inconveniences, like taking off my shoes, which means I have to get to the airport much earlier.

Of course, some elements of being human haven't changed.  McLain does a great job of describing the Hemingways in love in the early days, and the brutal emotions caused by the unravelling of that love.  She describes Hemingway's ambitions in great detail, as well as his ugliness towards those early champions of his work.  She also shows the mental instability at the root of Hemingway's ugliness to all those people who loved him.  I came away feeling more sympathy for Ernest Hemingway than I expected to.

Hadley is the true hero of this novel, as you would expect.  I adored her sturdy adaptability.  I felt righteous indignation for the ways that she was treated.  I wanted her to go out and find her own career, but of course, because it was the 1920's, she didn't have those opportunities.

Yes, it's good to be a writer in 2012.  The publishing industry may be imploding in ways we can't control, but we have so many more options than Ernest Hemingway did.  Think about how many more people are reading these days than in the 1920's.  Think about how many more ways there are to get a book than in the 1920's.  Think about the fact that I can get on a plane and be in Paris by the end of the day; in the 1920's, I would have been on an ocean liner for several weeks.

It was moderately enjoyable to spend time in Paris with the Hemingways, via this book, but in the end, I'm glad I'm not stuck there.

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