annotation by Talya Jankovits
I have a soft spot for books that take history and spin it into marvelous fiction based on thorough research. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, is the epitome of such fine work. Taking the story of Hemingway’s first marriage and merging fictional voice with real life events, McLain presents to us a novel, a work known as fiction, but one that probably more closely brings a reader to the intimate lives of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson that by the time you finish the book, you are unsure if you read fiction or fell into the world of a real woman in the 1920’s.
There are so many striking aspects of this novel that made my head dizzy with want. Firstly, the research is thorough and detailed. From authentic description of place and time to vernacular, fashion and a movement of writing that swept through and made a place in the literary canon. McLain takes a world that to many avid readers of literature, might seem dreamy and unreachable and through conviction of narrative, places her reader in Paris cafés with writers such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Its a writer and literary academic’s wet dream. She so fully captivated this time that there were moments where I felt disappointed to put the book down and face our own modern reality. This is a testimony to how well McLain researched her characters and time period. When taking a chunk of history and using it for fiction, a writer takes many risks and often, falls short, but McLain sets the bar high and honors a woman whose experiences deserved to be captured and shared.
At times, I wasn’t sure if I was reading fiction or someone’s actual memoir. I so thoroughly believed McLain’s fictional voice of Richardson and Hemingway, and all the real life writers that came in and out of the story as characters that I hardly thought these conversation were imagined. Everything; each interaction, character development and change in plot felt authentic. What most struck me is the change I saw in Hemingway in the novel. McLain was so careful to allow the character to morph into himself. Nothing felt sudden or expected, something of note when reading a novel about a person’s life that has been so thoroughly exposed and studied already.
I think the challenge of character development is greater when trying to capture an actual person, because you are already limited by what that person became. Laws of fiction are broken to an extent when committed to staying true to history. But McLain made it seem easy and seamless, as if these people were her own. The conviction was mesmerizing. Days on end have passed and I still can’t get the characters out of my head. I feel haunted by them, betrayed and torn. I don’t think that it’s only because the actual marriage of Hemingway and Richardson was so rich in story already; it’s a tribute to McLain, who merged these people into fiction and brought the reader closer to them than a memoir ever could.
I’m working on a historical fiction novel myself, but unlike McLain, I am not limited by honoring the lives of real people. I have the luxury to explore my own characters of creation, but I am familiar with the demands of history and the obligations it imposes on fiction. I decided to take greater liberties with my historical background and events and I’ve made these decisions in order to honor and serve the fiction which demands to take place on the page.
I am humbled by McLain, who did not compromise her commitment to history nor her vision of fiction and was able to produce something that felt both fictional and real. The Paris Wife is writing at its best.