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Book Club Reflection: The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

19 Feb

Author Paul McClain is coming to my local area to speak next month so my book club decided to read The Paris Wife in anticipating of hearing her speak. I read this book a number of years ago and I heard McClain speak a while back as well. I didn’t re-read the book and I’m not able to go to the presentation so I went to my book club more to listen than anything. I remembered not liking the book and re-read my review before going. I’m not sure if I came away with anything different from what I thought after my initial reading, but it’s always great to hear what these women and men have to say.

McClain was born in 1965 and her background is in education. She taught English and, obviously, taught Hemingway to her students. She said it was when she was revisiting A Moveable Feast that she got the idea for this novel.

There were some readers in the group who were shocked to hear Hemingway lived in Michigan! He’s so often associated with Florida and Paris that Michigan, especially rural Michigan, seems like a stretch. Horton Bay, MI is located close to Boyne and Charlevoix for anyone who knows their Michigan geography. For those who only know a Michigander’s annoying habit of pointing out locations on their hand, it’s the fingernail of the ring finger.

With so many books written about Pound, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, it was refreshing to have something written from a female perspective (Stein excluded). This group was ‘lovingly’ dubbed the Lost Generation. The survivors of World War I, even those who didn’t see battle, were a bit lost and directionless. Many lost friends and family and there was a feeling of no future and no reason to plan for it. It created a sense of carefree living that bordered on recklessness and these writers were defining the lifestyle.

Some readers, like me, felt Hadley was a little flat and a lot of things happened around her without her taking part in them. She tried to fit in with Hemingway, this wonderful younger man, and his friends by drinking and partying. She came off as a saint because she dealt with Ernest’s antics. This plays into my personal frustration with the ‘Famous Wives’ phenomenon we saw a while back (Under the Wide and Starry Sky, The Aviator’s Wife). These women are defined by the men they married. The books do not develop them enough to make the woman herself vivid and interesting to read about. To be fair, I’ve enjoyed books about Zelda Fitzgerald (Z, Call Me Zelda) because she’s her own woman and not defined by Scott. Anyway, I’ll step off this soapbox now…

Someone asked if anyone thought Hadley got pregnant on purpose. A few had suspicions and it seems somewhat plausible. She didn’t want to be alone and wanted to solidify her marriage to Ernest. Some of us were bothered by her not being involved in Bumby’s upbringing, but that was likely a product of the times. We wondered as well if their hands-off parenting was a reaction to their domineering mothers. Instead of being overly involved in their son’s life, they wanted to give him space. We also noted on how that hands-off/hands-on parenting can swing back and forth through time and after a hands-off time with Hippy culture in the 70s, we’ve moved to a very hands-on helicopter parent culture. Hm.

The same reader asked if we thought Hadley lost Ernest’s work on purpose. Her logic was thinking Hadley was jealous of Ernest and the time he spent writing and that if he didn’t have his work, he’d stay home and be near her. It was later admitted that losing his worth started the irrevocable change to their relationship. There wasn’t anyone else in our group who suspected this might have been on purpose.

Many suspected that Ernest suffered from PTSD and that others in the group may have as well. He was very sure of himself and cocky but there were moments when he was weak, crying uncontrollably and an emotional wreck. We also wondered if he had depression. With the number of suicides in his family, it’s likely it could have been a genetic condition.

The affair rubbed many of us the wrong way. There were so many affairs in their circle of friends that Ernest saw it as normal while Hadley hadn’t changed her perspective enough to see it this way. Sections of the book written in Ernest’s voice rationalized it, saying how his friends were able to do it so he should have no problem having an affair as well. What bothered a lot of us was that they were living off Hadley’s money and she should have just cut him off!

I’ve already heard McClain speak and it didn’t sway my opinion of her book much. I wonder if others in the group will have their impressions changed at all by hearing her.

Until next time, write on.

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