The mid-20th century certainly had to have been one of the most interesting times to roam the streets of Paris. Conversing with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and virtually any other famous expat, required simply that one walk into a cafe in Montparnasse. In her book The Paris Wife, Paula McLain offers a detailed account of Hemingway’s early years in both Chicago and Paris from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley Richardson.
The reader encounters Stein in her atelier, Fitzgerald on the beaches of southern France, and the Pamplona bull fights that inspired Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
McLain stays impressively close to historical record, adding very little to the story that is imagined.
Especially interesting are the descriptions of various relationship dynamics. Jazz Age Paris was a progressive time to say the least. Women were forward, powerful, and unabashedly sexy. Men had mistresses. Everyone drank, everyone smoked, and everyone lived each night as if morning would never come. Unlike Ernest Hemingway “[who] was 21 and white hot with life,” Hadley Richardson was “29 [and] feeling almost obsolete.” She was desperately in love with her husband but, living in Paris, the two could not be more different.
Upon finishing the book, I initially recommended it to everyone, man or woman. “Anyone that is even remotely interested in Paris and the host of expatriates the city inspired would just love this book!” I, however, stand corrected. Though the book is historically compelling, simultaneously pulling on the heartstrings of any Hemingway fanatic, it is distinctly “girly,” filled with romantic clichés such as, “I can do anything if I have you with me.”
But francophilic gents, don’t despair. The famed historian David McCullough has written an even more impressive, entirely historic account of expats in Paris. His newest book, The Greater Journey is the most educational, inspiring piece of literature I have ever read. The reader learns about everything ranging from Thomas Jefferson’s Paris neighborhood, to the invention of the telegraph, to the making of John Singer Sargent’s painting, Madame X, and socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Suffice it to say, I learned more about the history and evolution of modern medicine from McCullough’s descriptions of Paris Médicale than I ever did as a Johns Hopkins student (Johns Hopkins University that boasts the #1 medical school in the world, by the way).
Whether you are a lover of all things French, an avid reader of Hemingway, or simply an intellectual spirit looking to enhance your knowledge of one of the most influential cities in human history, both The Paris Wife and The Greater Journey promise a satisfying, educational read.
Rachel Ryan studied Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, l'Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy and l'Université Paris - La Sorbonne Diderot (Paris VII) in Paris, France. You can follow her on twitter @rachelryan1004
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S.L.: In my youth I was inspired by Hemingway, and studied his writing style; the epitome of brevity, down-to-the-bones. I sought adventure so that I’d have something to write about, and made a career out of adventuring. I even learned to speak French and Spanish.
Along the way I began to look at Hemingway’s stuff with a jaundiced eye – especially his later stuff. His early stuff was good, and so was the fish story but toward the end there he churned out an awful lot of tripe.
Still, that must have been some rarified atmosphere, back there during the Paris years . . . “the Lost Generation” . . .
Now that I’ve got a kit bag full of adventures, I find it very difficult to write, because it always comes out sounding like a war story – and the only difference between a war story and a fairy tale is a war story starts out with “There we were, no sh*t . . .” and a fairy tale starts out with “Once Upon A Time . . .”
Having said that, upon the advice of my muse I am locking myself in my office this weekend and writing . . . we’ll see where it leads . . .
- STORMBRINGER SENDS