Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife -- by Paula McLain

Ernest Hemingway was an Esquire magazine kind of writer. A pin-up boy for machismo. (Esquire, this month asking writers everywhere to define what makes a man a man, is asking what manliness is in this decade, and the writers have answers for all to chew on, in print and online.)
But let us return to Ernest, whose harshest angst mainly seems to have involved himself, and which wife would best accommodate his needs--laced, at least in the early days, with worries about money. But I am too cruel. He was a good writer. I like much of his work. Ernest was good. And Ernest was a man. But maybe not a good man. And perhaps I digress again, as I mimic his terse style.
In McLain's narrative, a novel meant to spin out some of the emotional turnpoints in what is already a pretty well-researched life, she paints a portrait of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Mostly, we get Hadley's point of view. She is with him five years, during which the first baby Hemingway is born and graced with one of the silly nicknames their crowd of friends seemed to have in great supply.
In what is a variation on an age-old story, the adventurous, hard-drinking writer continues to seek fame and good drinking spots in a frivolous world while his less-adventuresome, equally hard-drinking and slightly maternal wife Hadley slowly gives up her interests for his happiness. Thank God they paid a nanny to step in when that required accompanying him on binges and expeditions. That seems archaic now, but this was the 1920s, when gaiety and women's lib were not co-existent. (Unless one was Gertrude Stein.)
I'm not sure I buy all of this tale, but there is a large body of research behind Hemingway's much-married life, and that supports at least the basics. Married four times, he ended his life in suicide when it all became too much, leaving a small fortune to his cats--dozens of whom still lounge about his old Florida Keys home.
But that was in the 60s, not in the rip-roaring '20s.
There is fascinating detail, too, about Hemingway's insecurity as a young writer, unproven and unknown, and his efforts to stick to writing despite the despair of rejection after rejection. Any writer can identify with that. The Hemingways were a celebrated couple, living the fast life among the disenchanted. Hemingway added it to his short stories while the idea simmered for a novel about matadors and disconnected, disenchanted American ex-pats. It would become "The Sun Also Rises," perhaps his greatest novel. For many nights, and some days on end, they caroused with the likes of other noted writers who drank between the lines: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein. That he produced it in such uncomfortable circumstances as the couple were inhabiting is a tribute to focus and dedication. Remember, he was a top-notch foreign correspondent in the days when that was a real profession. When he wrote, he wrote hard. When he drank, he drank harder. (It would all become part of "A Moveable Feast," published after his 1961 death.)
Hemingway the writer--sharp as a tack. Hemingway the man--watch out! He stomped all over Hadley's pitiful heart, and she forgave him. He was self-absorbed, drunk quite often, and terribly depressed when things weren't going well. He was also a brilliant writer and journalist. Ah, the creative life.
I grabbed his short stories from my bookshelf and found that reading them as they were mentioned in Hadley's narrative (only brief segments are in Ernest's voice) gave me insight into his life. This added a dimension to the reading that elevates the story as well.
McLain's writing is light, conversational -- as if poor Hadley is confiding in the reader as she shares the passion and despair of her time with him. Being older, wiser (and having the benefit of knowing the outcome), the reader will sympathize with her naivete and her dedication to being a good wife to a demanding man.
"The Paris Wife" is an interesting story. It doesn't tell us anything new about Ernest Hemingway, but it does bring him to life in a new way, through Hadley's perception.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review, "Letters from Skye"

Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brochmole
Ballantine Books, to be published in July 2013

“Letters from Skye” is an epistolary novel – revealed completely through letters. But it has a twist, in that the letters are exchanged during two separate wars, by two couples linked by a mother-daughter relationship.
Elspeth Dunn, 24, married and lonely, is a young poet living on Scotland’s Isle of Skye in 1912. Her work has been published and has met with some success when she receives a fan letter from a young American, David Graham. Their friendship in letters deepens with time and becomes love when Elspeth realizes she shares more of an emotional bond with David than her own distant, gruff soldier-husband. David’s subsequent enrollment in the war, as an ambulance driver, brings him closer to Elspeth’s world.
But another voice—and another exchange of letters—enters the story with Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, in 1940. Margaret is in love with her childhood friend Paul, a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Their letters begin to document a love story from another generation, unencumbered by some of the societal constrictions Elspeth and David faced, and undiluted by the Elspeth’s warnings to her daughter that a relationship during wartime is troubled from the start.
Margaret is unaffected by her mother’s dire predictions, but when Elspeth disappears after Margaret has read one of a collection of letters found in her mother’s belongings, Margaret sets out to find her—and discover her mother’s secrets.
The intertwined letters of mother and daughter, against the love stories woven between lovers during two world wars, reveal no villains or tragic flaws. More, they reflect the tragedies that occur in a world shaken by war. Hunger, suspicion, betrayal, deception, and grief all wrap themselves around Elspeth when she falls in love with David, risking her family’s approval. In the 1940s, however, we find these deathly courtiers mostly absent from Margaret’s life. Her fears for Paul’s safety, and terror at his silences, are met with her lover’s reassurance, his support, his unfailing love.
Reading Elspeth’s story, as we are drawn deeper into the exchange of letters she shares with David, we wonder what has happened since the first war to leave Elspeth alone, or nearly so, and deeply saddened by her life. How, we wonder, could someone as devoted to her as David seems to be have left? Or did he die?
Brockmole’s upcoming novel, being published in July, explores this mystery patiently, as time passes and lovers are lost, regained, and lost again. With the unraveling comes the tension created by a skilled storyteller, teasing the reader with allusions to the present decade and World War II, played against the very different love story of Elspeth. Will she and her daughter shared the same fate—and what, in truth, was that fate? We won’t know until, like voyeurs exploring an attic box of letters, we come upon the last letter.
  “Letters from Skye” is a good read, one that brings to life the fears and losses of wartime in any generation—but especially during these two seminal wars. Brockmole’s writing style is simple and light, unfettered by plot confusion or too much time travel between scenes. The lack of much complexity in the characters is a disappointment, but not a deal breaker. There is insight into their hearts and minds, revealing courage and allowing the reader to watch as they weigh their options and make their choices, for better or worse.
This format is a little unusual, but not unique: Wilkie Collins and Bram Stroker employed it in their novels, and Mary Shelley dramatized “Frankenstein” through letters. It’s a little hard to embark without the aid of a narrator, but one soon learns enough through the letters to feel close to the characters and their trials.