Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ooh, la la-- The Paris Wife

Paula McLain's novel, The Paris Wife, doesn't feel like a novel.  In fact, it feels more like a memoir, and, it almost is.    From the first page, we're invited into a world so full of details that it doesn't seem possible that McLain wasn't seated next to her characters on the beach in France.  Hers is an intimate and vivid portrayal of a family whose patriarch made my life a living hell for a month in high school.

I'm referring, of course, to Ernest Hemingway, whose novel The Old Man and the Sea was the bane of my existence for a month in 10th grade.  Thankfully, McLain's novel takes place decades before Hemingway ever began to think about that awful book. The Paris Wife isn't even Hemingway's story, it's his wife's.  Hadley Richardson was the second woman Hemingway ever loved and the first he married.  Unfortunately, she wasn't the last.  But, their relationship was so pure and beautiful that it remains relevant even today.  In researching whether the book had much basis in truth (which it does,) I came across a quote attributed to Hemingway.  He once said that he wished he'd died before he ever fell out of love with Hadley.  While that's sad on so many levels, to me it's also wonderfully romantic.  It suggests that theirs was a love that made him feel like he had lived his entire live in the short time they were together.  Theirs was a relationship that made him so happy that nothing else compared.  There's something heartbreaking and wonderful about that concept.

The book is written in Hadley's voice.  It is she who tells us about Hemingway's struggles to become a famous writer, about the demons he battled, and the life they led together.  They met and married shortly after World War 1, when the flapper age came to light.  They had no money, but they had each other, as cliche as that is.  And, they had the wonderfully artistic world of Paris.  They gallivanted around with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and even Don Stewart, who later wrote my favorite movie, The Philadelphia Story.  They had no money, but they wintered in Austria and summered in Spain.  They visited art museums, spent their days in cafes and their evenings at concerts.  Makes me wish I had no money...

The Hemingways were an interesting and fun couple and the book teaches us a lot about Papa himself. If I had one complaint, it would be that I never really felt that I understood who Hadley was.  Though the book is her story, I never really understood what makes her special.  But, then, I wonder if that's what happens whenever we look at life through someone's eyes.  Perhaps we never have the ability to see what makes ourselves special, so it's impossible to really convey that in our own story.  Or, perhaps McLain didn't develop Hadley enough for my liking.  I'm not really sure which is the case.

What I do know is that Hadley and Hem got more out of life in their five years together than many people get in a lifetime.  Their relationship benefitted us all because, without Hadley, Hemingway would never have gotten the support he needed to begin his career.  And, Old Man and the Sea aside, we're all luckier for having read Hemingway.  That is an amor tres important.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Perfect Stories-- The Imperfectionists

I've never really been much of a fan of short story collections.  I usually find that the stories don't fit together well and, often, that the author slipped in a line or two to completely unrelated subject matters in order to create a collection.  (I'm talking to you Olive Kitteridge...)

Luckily, that was not the case with Tom Rachman's novel The Imperfectionists.  Rachman gives us an insight into many of the personalities who run a fictional English Language newspaper set in Rome.  We meet several reporters, the publisher, a few editors, and even the paper's accountant.  Each has a separate story focusing on his or her personal life.  And, yet, each story melds together so well because we're introduced to the various characters throughout the novel.  For example, the editor who seems so cold-hearted to one reporter is really dealing with a cheating spouse and has no energy to deal with his reporter's incompetence.  Or, the obituary writer is not as lackluster and useless as everyone seems to believe, he simply was uninspired by his tasks.

There is a message to the varied perspectives Rachman offers us, I believe.  The myriad cliches that are swirling through my mind are those about walking in another's shoes or not knowing what goes on behind closed doors.  But, I don't think it's accidental that this book takes place in a newsroom.  No, I think that Rachman wanted us to understand that there are two sides to every story.  That we must force ourselves to remain objective about other people and their situations until we know all the details.  The fact is, as a general rule, we all believe we're the front page story in everyone's life.  We are confident that our every mistake, our every word and our every action is scrutinized by others with as much intensity as we look our ourselves.  The truth is, most of us are lucky if we earn any typeface at all in another's newspaper.  We'd all do well to remember that everyone has their own front page story and their interactions with us are complicated by the headlines in their world.

It's hard for me to accept this view of the world, of course.  I like believing that K Mart was named for me (though I'd prefer Target was my store instead.  And, really, if we're making stores mine, let's go big.  How about Kottery Barn or Krada...?)  I like living in a world where every time a person gives me a dirty look it's because they're reacting to me.  The truth is, to paraphrase Paulie Bleeker (from Juno!!), they probably aren't giving me a dirty look, it's probably just the way their face is.

Rachman's stories remind us that the world is bigger than we are.  That's a pretty perfect message for this imperfect world...