After buying Paula McLain's historical novel, The Paris Wife, it took me months to begin reading. The book was garnering good reviews, I love Paris and especially love novels about Paris in the 1920's. I'm a fan of Ernest Hemingway's novels and yet...I hesitated in opening the book.
Interestingly enough, McLain's book sat next to Hemingway's book, A Moveable Feast, a set of memoirs he wrote during the Paris years which I'd bought during a visit to Key West, Florida a few years back. And, never read.
Elizabeth Hadley Richardson was Hemingway's first wife and the wife he took to Paris. The wife he cheated on and ultimately left for another woman. Why was I having a hard time opening the book? Because of a Hemingway quote I'd heard about his first wife, Hadley which I didn't know was from A Moveable Feast when I first heard the quote.
"I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her." Hmmm.
I hadn't read McLain's previous books and didn't know a thing about Hadley Richardson, but I could already relate to Richardson's story as a woman and as a woman whose husband of 25 years had cheated on and ultimately left. I knew it would be an emotional read for me and so, the book sat on my bedside table for months until curiosity prevailed. I picked up the book several times and put it down. I hesitated, but finally got to the point where I couldn't put the book down. I realized it had nothing to do with McLain's book. It was about me.
I loved the book, but to protect my heart, I decided to read the novel as a writer. I wasn't going to fall in love with Hadley. I didn't want my heart to be broken along with her's, so I began reading the novel as a text book. I began highlighting passages that appealed to me as a writer and studied McLain's writing style which I enjoyed. She made 1920 Paris come alive for me.
Then, a funny thing happened. I read the first few chapters and realized that the descriptions of Hadley weren't enough for me. I was beginning to know her heart and quietly walked by her side as she first met Hemingway and they fell in love. My heart ached even while reading the happy, early days because I knew that her heart would eventually break into a million pieces at the end. Did I really want to know the ending? It was too late. I already knew that he'd cheated on her. I was a now voyeur with no voice.
I searched for photographs of Hadley. I wanted to see the face of the woman whose heart would be broken. She was beautiful. That's when everything changed and I began reading The Paris Wife as a woman, not as a writer.
I wondered about my own historical novel-length manuscript, A Decent Woman. How would make my readers connect with Ana Belen, my protagonist since there are no known photographs of her? Ana has no biography other than blogs I've written about her and her connection with my family. Could my readers connect with an Afro-Cuban midwife who lived in the early 1900's in Ponce, Puerto Rico?
It is up to me to paint a portrait of my character Ana with words and it is ultimately up to me to make my readers care about Ana and what happens to her. I realized this week that the haunting photographs of Hadley are just that, photographs. The photographs didn't help me get a better feel for Hadley and Ernest, McLain's story did that for me. Reading Hadley's biography didn't paint a picture of her for me and the photographs of her didn't give me any more insight into her, her marriage to Hemingway nor their life in Paris.
McLain's novel brought Hadley and Paris in the 1920's to life for me. I loved it and as I suspected, I cried along with Hadley. I was happy to read that she went on to marry again and was married a long time to her second husband.
Bravo, Paula McLain. Now, I must read A Moveable Feast to get Hemingway's "side of the story" of their years in Paris.
Happy Friday, everyone.