Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: The Paris Wife

When I first started this blog, I promised myself that in addition to posting about my stitching, I'd also comment on the books I've been listening to during my morning walks.  Seeing that I've actually already completed several of them since I last posted a book review, it's time to keep the promise and share some of my thoughts on another one.  Thanks to Michelle and Elizabeth for gently reminding me to keep up with it!

Picking up where I left off, here's how I feel about The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain:

Why did I choose this book?  I have a long and tangled history with Ernest Hemingway.  It began with idle curiosity in high school when I raced through a copy of "The Old Man and the Sea", more or less to find out what the mystique was all about.  One of my very first freshman seminars in college was Literature of the Jazz Age, in which Hemingway's works were a topic of dubious attraction.  My professor had a grizzled white beard, patches on his elbows and smelled faintly of whiskey most of the time.  I remember then thinking that the only people who were more romanced with Hemingway than he was with himself were those who tried a little too hard to be just like him.  This impression was further solidified when Jim and I visited Key West on our honeymoon in 1981.  Turned out that weekend was also the very first Ernest Hemingway Days celebration.  The island was full of guys with white beards who smelled as if they'd been soaked in whiskey.  "What's up with that?",  I remember thinking.

Since that time, we've visited his home, watched his cats, staggered down Whitehead Street and listened to his works - good and bad - with each return.  I've come to see him not so much as a "great America novelist" as a kindred spirit who also found beauty and inspiration in those turquoise waters.  So of course I had to listen to this book - good or bad.

What was this book about?  The Paris Wife is the tale of Hemingway's early life in Paris with first wife Hadley, as told from her perspective.  During this time, he wrote "The Sun Also Rises", one of the pieces I was so unimpressed with in college.  It does a very nice job of explaining the larger context of its inception  It also put the breakdown of Hadley and Ernest's relationship and his affair and eventual marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer into perspective for me.  Most importantly, it prompted me to listen to "The Sun Also Rises", as performed by William Hurt.  At long last, I understand.  What a spare, heartbroken masterpiece.

What was my favorite scene?  It was the scene in which the Hemingway entourage visits the bull fights in Pamplona.  I could see in my mind all the tensions beneath the surface of the interactions, set against the thrill of the festival.

Who was my favorite character?  I don't suppose this is a very fair question of this book since it is so clearly Hadley's tale.  It's easy to sympathize and even feel sorry for her once Pauline enters the story.  But I also felt frustrated with her at times, though it may have been from looking at a traditional woman of the 1920's  through the lens of time.   Flawed and selfish as he was portrayed in the story and no doubt was in real life, Ernest gets my vote. 

Would I listen to this again?  I don't know, I might.  As far as it being a good listen, I think not so much.  But if my mood shifts and I feel the need to consider again Ernest Hemingway and his place in my own  life, I just might..


Michelle said...

Great review! I agree with you that the bullfight scene was a great one - all the tension, on top of the tension of the bullfight itself. And I felt like I understood Hadley most of the time, but then other times she frustrated the heck out of me - but as you said, maybe it's looking through our own lens that causes that.

Elizabeth said...

Mary - great review! I've seen this one pop up so much on my amazon suggestions but have yet to pick it up. I admittedly don't read much Hemingway and like you, it's taken me some digging to find what the fuss is. I'm still digging, personally, but maybe if I step out of what he wrote and read about him instead, it will help! Also, I'd love to read about Paris in the 1920s and an American's experience there. Thanks for sharing this one!

Penny said...

I love a combination of books and stitching! I'm glad to have found your blog! :)