The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

From Gravity’s Rainbow to elevated chick lit! It’s astounding how enjoyable the ride of a good, straightforward novel can be after a Pynchian or Joycean brain wreck. It’s like going from a groaning board of beautifully prepared pigs feet and sweet breads served with absinthe and laudanum in a darkened hall to a simple morning repast of a scone and coffee in the sunlit corner of a cozy kitchen. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is smart historical fiction about one of the historical figures I’m most fascinated by, Ernest “Papa” Hemingway.

My grandparents used to vacation in Ketchum, Idaho. Grandpa flew his Apache airplane into the Hailey airport long before it became the blinding white parking lot of Learjets and Gulfstream whatever number they’re on now. Grandpa was there to fish on the rivers. They took me once, when I was twelve, and we went to the Hemingway monument and to the incredible Ice Caves and poked around the little cow town. I was on the cusp of an addiction to Seventeen magazine and Margaux Hemingway, Ernest’s beautiful granddaughter, was in all of the Babe cologne advertisements. I thought she was the most incredible looking woman with her caterpillar eyebrows and tiny ski slope nose. I looked absolutely not one whit like her but I still put Babe products on my Christmas list. I was a Hemingway fan before I’d ever picked up one of Papa’s books.

Later, in my 20s, I did read just about everything he’d ever written and my favorites by a mile are Byline, a collection of articles he wrote as a newspaper correspondent, and A Moveable Feast, the book about his time in Paris with his first wife, Hadley–the Paris Wife.

McLain does a great job of novelizing the story. She makes Ernest very attractive but also shows his incredible vanity and narcissism, which by the end becomes pretty sickening. She creates a great character in the wife. Hadley Hemingway is a woman of her times, nine years Hemingway’s senior, and almost but not quite modern enough to evolve with and hold on to him (although with his personality he would be bound to have affairs no matter how scintillating and gorgeous a wife he had). I can’t quite imagine the feeling of being left alone day after day in a freezing, ugly Parisian flat with no private bathroom, although I’ve been left alone day after day in an ugly ranch house in the middle of the California high desert, i.e. nowhere. You clean. You draw. You write bad poetry.

I’ve been cold and broke in Europe before too, and it takes a lot of gumption just to get out of bed and walk around (then again, it always takes a lot to get me out of bed when it’s cold, even when I have plenty of money). At least in Paris there is a lot to look at–it is a visual feast, and that’s enough to keep you going for a while. I remember eating raw string beans from a produce stand along the Seine for dinner one night. A few years later I went back on an expense account and my dinners were more along the lines of roast duck and pommes frites with lots of red Burgundy. It’s much more pleasant to roam around in a body warmed with duck and Burgundy.

I’ve been to Ketchum, aka Sun Valley, again several times since I was 12, even once via Learjet. I don’t love the town–a Lululemon was opening up the last time I was there, which must have been around 2010, and it was all about Arnold and Demi and Bruce and Tom and Rita and everybody who was anybody and how big was their house. The part I did like was hiking Mount Baldy as fast as I could, channeling Ernest’s other granddaughter, Mariel, who confessed that she existed on coffee and air popped popcorn and hiked Baldy obsessively. I couldn’t stick to the diet but I’m a damned fast hiker.

A super sad Margaux story: when I was living in San Francisco and looking for a job, I took on a volunteer position as an event organizer for the then popular Les Amis du Vin wine tasting club. I put together an event, I think it was a Riesling tasting, and the sleazy founder of the organization picked me up in a cheesy white limo. He had a bandaged arm in a sling and there was a skinny, sniffling Frenchman in shiny suit with him–there were still a lot of losers ruining their lives with cocaine in the late ’80s. When I asked what had happened to his arm he told me that his girlfriend, Margaux Hemingway, had thrown a glass at him which cut his arm severely and it got infected. I later saw a photo of Margaux in an article about her alcohol and drug addiction and she looked bloated and worn-out, practically unrecognizable.

Les Amis du Vin turned out to be a tawdry situation that I quickly exited, but I had meet enough wine people already and got a legitimate job almost immediately. I managed to steer clear of any more Eurotrash during the length of my wine industry career. Margaux continued to keep disreputable company and tragically committed suicide by drug overdose n 1996 at the age of 42.

My second ex-husband looked something like Hemingway in his youth–the dark wavy hair with high peaks on the forehead, the square chin and jaw. He was also a hunter, fisherman and skier and had had a lot of outdoor adventures, including surviving three days and two nights lost in a blizzard in Colorado. And there was the drinking–they also had that in common. So I introduced him to Hemingway’s writing and we read “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” out loud together. It was one of the best memories of our marriage in a way; one of the few times he had the patience to hang out with me and even seemed to enjoy it.

I pulled my copy of Mariel Hemingway’s autobiographical, Finding My Balance, off of my bookshelves and flipped through it, but it’s going into my give away bag. I know from friends in Sun Valley that for all her yoga and meditation she is manic and obsessive, far from healed of her family trauma and it makes me sick and sad to see beauty and celebrity selling their made up stories of health and happiness–stories I used to fall for hook, line and sinker, to use a fisherman’s metaphor. I know a boat load of yoga teachers and can only think of one or two who seem mentally and financially stable. I do a bit of yoga and I hike a fair amount and no matter how clear my mind is at the time I’m doing it, it’s back to life as usual when I step off the mat or return to the trailhead. Lasting serenity is so hard to come by.

I’m a little tired of the Hemingways–the constant mentions of alcohol and alcoholic behavior are making my sixteen years sober stomach a little queasy. Getting “stinking drunk” together was something that softened the rough edges of the Hemingway’s marriage, and I can relate. Although my ex was really supportive of me getting sober, it was the beginning of the slow decline of our marriage. We just didn’t have enough in common without the wine.

It’s been raining like crazy, so fire season is over for sure. There’s a break in the weather so I’d better go out and throw some rocks into the low parts of the creek so my bank doesn’t wash away. I need some fresh air, even if it is quite chilly out there–I’m determined not to get back in bed.

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