Book Club: The Paris Wife and Z
I’m still trying to get through my backlog of books I’ve read and need to write a review for. This week, I decided to review two books that take place at around the same time and deal with famous relationships: The Paris Wife and Z. The Paris Wife is a book about Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway, and Z is about Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
As much as I like to quote Ernest Hemingway, I don’t like him as a person. Hemingway was famous for being a misogynist, an anti-semite, homophobic, and an overall unpleasant person to be around with his superiority complex. When I found out his first wife was such a starkly different person from him, I was curious about the kind of woman who would (or could) love such a self-absorbed author. Hadley Richardson’s story was promptly downloaded to my Libby app.
A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.
A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.
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I always knew that Hadley Richardson was older, mature, and more of an introvert than the younger, arrogant, and rash Ernest Hemingway. When I was younger, I always thought that Hadley was a weak woman who let her husband get away with having an affair so openly without even fighting or saying anything to Hemingway about it. As I got older, my thoughts changed a bit. I don’t think extramarital affairs are ever okay but it’s never my place to judge a woman for staying with her husband in spite of it because I don’t know the realities of their marriage. Maybe they had an arrangement? Maybe Hadley was abused? I didn’t know and I didn’t want to assume.
Paula McClain’s book is told from the first person perspective of Hadley. She grew up with a conservative single mother after her father committed suicide. She was an excitable person but her mother and a bad injury made her into the quiet woman that she is famous for today. She was introverted but strong and resiliant. When she met Ernest, she was intrigued by how different he was from anyone she had ever known and he was ernest (ha) in his promises to her that he would love her and be faithful. For what it’s worth, I do believe he meant what he said when he said it. I just think that Hemingway had a bad habit of forgetting what he said afterwards though.
The book chronicles their marriage from the beginning as Hemingway becomes a reporter in Canada to a foreign correspondent in Paris where he meets various other Lost Generation writers of the time, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. As their social life booms, so does Hemingway’s interest in other women, one of which is documented in his thinly-veiled book, The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway becomes the much talked-about writer while Hadley becomes the ridiculed wife. This leads to Hemingway’s full-fledged affair with a Pauline Pfeiffer (who became Hemingway’s second wife). They divorce but Hemingway’s guilt leads to him giving Hadley the royalties for The Sun Also Rises.
I think Hadley’s resilience and strength is a really underrated characteristic and it really made me feel more compassion for her. I felt bad for thinking poorly of her for the way she dealt with her husband’s affair and made me realize how messed up it is to blame the wife for her husband’s cheating. Hadley was always portrayed as this boring, older woman who didn’t know how to have fun. Really, she was a woman who bore the responsibilities of raising a family and son while her husband chased his dreams of glory while spitting in her face. I can’t recommend this book enough and I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads!
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z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
Zelda Fitzgerald was one of those figures in history that fascinated me! I LOVED stories about her brazenness and ridiculous antics… but I also knew that if I ever knew a person like her, I would never be her friend, just a viewer of all the drama she seemed to enjoy stirring up. I felt that watching her would have been like the 1920s version of watching reality TV, so it’s hard not to enjoy her. I was really excited about delving into this book and reading about the other famous wife of a Lost Generation writer!
A dazzling novel that captures all of the romance, glamour, and tragedy of the first flapper, Zelda Fitzgerald.
When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the "ungettable" Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn't wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame.
Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner's, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick's Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.
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I don’t know who Therese Anne Fowler thinks Zelda Fitzgerald actually was but she was most definitely not the woman I recognized in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Zelda was spoiled, spontaneous, tempestuous, fiery, and witty above all. She was the original flapper. She was mentally ill (she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder) and her highs were higher than anyone else’s. She was nothing like this whiny ninny that was characterized in this book, and in fact would have probably eaten her for breakfast!
This book is told from the first person narrative of Zelda Fitzgerald, a gorgeous southern belle who originally rejected Scott’s proposal because she didn’t believe he would be able to provide for her all the luxuries she currently enjoyed as the daughter of a judge in Montgomery, Alabama. In reality, she was seventeen years old and wanted to continue receiving the attention she got that she would inevitably have to give up, and she wanted someone with better prospects than that upstart yank. Eventually, she married him after he proved he could be a successful writer by publishing This Side of Paradise. They moved to New York where they lived a fun-loving, jazz-filled, boozy life. They eventually moved to Paris and had their daughter. The Zelda I know loved her daughter… but only when it was convenient for her. In this book, the writer makes her out to be a lot more maternal than I came to believe and I have a hard time believing that’s how she actually was. She entertained a brief affair in France after Fitzgerald neglects her. They reach an understanding and stay married, but she becomes a shell of the woman she was. In my understanding of who she was, this sounds nothing like the real Zelda.
For all of Zelda’s flaws, there was a reason why she is considered to be the original flapper girl - she was original, she was outrageous, and she was fabulously tragic. She lived a lot better and so much worse than everyone around her. The Zelda in Z was just tragic and sad. I just didn’t recognize her.
I gave this book 3/5 stars on Goodreads because even though I didn’t like the way Zelda was characterized and felt the author took a lot liberties with her character, it was well-written and entertaining to read.