Review: “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

Paris Wife

The story of The Paris Wife is familiar to anyone who knows A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy“. Feast was written some 30 years after Hemingway left Hadley for her friend Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become the second of his four wives. McLain retells Feast from Hadley’s perspective, in the tradition of novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, giving voice to a pivotal and yet comparatively silent woman from a classic book. The difference between the two is that the action here is largely seen through Hadley’s eyes; the domestic takes precedence and there are more emotions and exposition than Papa would permit.

Hadley Richardson is 28 when she first meets the glamorous young war hero at a party. Wholesome, a little old-fashioned, she’s resigned to a spinsterish existence, living unmarried and unemployed in the upper floor of her sister’s house. Despite the cobwebs she is, as Ernest quickly spots, “a good clear sort“, and so he marries her and whisks her from St Louis to the whirlwind of 1920s Paris, in part because it was comparatively cheap for expatriates just after the First World War. The young Hemingways were soon befriended by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, James Joyce, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Modernism was taking flight: in February 1922 Sylvia Beach would publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and in December 1922 T.S. Eliot and Pound published The Waste Land. Hemingway absorbed it all.

Even stripped to the core, the story possesses a classically tragic arc, and it’s not hard to see its appeal to a novelist bent on re-fleshing bare bones. Ernest and Hadley – Tatie, as they call each other – begin their expat life in a flush of love. He writes, she cooks, and they drink away the evenings “until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together“. The first ripple of disharmony comes when Hadley decides to bring all Ernest’s manuscripts – three years of work, copies included – with her in a valise to a rendezvous in Switzerland. Of course, the case is lost, and the disaster exposes a fault line between the pair that’s only further strained when Hadley discovers she’s pregnant.

McLain atmospherically evokes the garret apartments in which they lived; the notorious trip to Lausanne during which Hadley lost all of Hemingway’s drafts; the outings to the Paris races, skiing in Austria and bullfighting in Pamplona – the trips that would inspire The Sun Also Rises. It was an era of “open” marriages, although the openness was often one-sided, as McLain pointedly shows male artists such as Pound, Ford and, eventually, Hemingway, trying (often successfully) to install their mistresses in the same home as their wives. McLain resists the facile idea that such ménages were a jolly party in the first era of free love: as Hadley gradually becomes aware that Hemingway might be unfaithful, first with Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley, and later, much more seriously, with her friend Pauline, she must decide how “modern” she’s prepared to be.

Hadley is a deeply touching character, dignified even as she loses almost everything she’s loved, and making her goodness both convincing and interesting is an impressive feat. McLain captures Hemingway’s legendary charisma and his fatal tendencies toward bullying and boastfulness. She also manages to evoke his hypnotic, infectious cadences in her own prose without straying into parody: Hadley remembers “The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that.” Some might wish McLain had given Hadley a voice more distinct from the highly stylised prose of Feast – but for anyone steeped in that book its idiom is an undeniably effective way of making the story feel good and simple and true.

McLain writes with vivid, memorable touches: the pregnant Hadley, game to the last, sewing baby blankets between bullfights; Hemingway declaring that Pound can’t be “the devil”, because “I’ve met the devil . . . and he doesn’t give a damn about art“. Fitzgerald assures Hadley the first time they meet that he’ll write something new if she will “promise to admire every word extravagantly“; McLain has a similarly good ear for Zelda’s famously imagistic language, having her describe a flapper as “decorative and unfathomable and all made of silver“. The Paris Wife sings with such pitch-perfect renderings of famous voices, grounded in a tale made all the more poignant for our knowledge of how sad all the young men and women will turn out to be, how the bright young things will tarnish and disintegrate. In drafts cut from the first edition of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris . . . That Paris you could never put into a single book.” Maybe not – but Paula McLain has come impressively close.

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Review: “The Devil’s Consort” by Anne O’Brien

Devil's Consort

So, funny story. I bought a copy of The Devil’s Consort without looking at the synopsis and the cover (local indie bookseller recommendations FTW), thinking it’s another Philippa Gregory. Instead, as you can see, the cover said, “Better than PHILIPPA GREGORY” like it could read my mind. Mildly apprehensive but buoyed by the tagline of “England’s Most Ruthless Queen”, I settled in to read a book where I knew I wouldn’t stop making comparisons. Despite my negative (and totally wrong) preconceptions, I found it to be action-packed, full of intrigue and emotional drama, very similar to chick-lit but with greater impact because it’s loosely based on historical fact.

For those of you who are as ignorant as I was on the subject of the European monarchy in the Middle Ages of the non-Tudor variety, Eleanor was a pretty powerful lady; Duchess of Aquitaine (a sizeable region of France) in her own right, she was also the only woman ever to have been queen of both France and England. Documenting the early part of Eleanor’s life, the first person narrative of Devil’s Consort keeps the reader privy to the Duchess’s most intimate thoughts throughout her disastrous marriage to King Louis VI and the initial years of her relationship with King Henry II. Those amongst you who don’t consider yourself history buffs should feel a little more well-educated on the subject of Eleanor of Aquitaine after reading this book, thanks to O’Brien’s in-depth portrait.

A former history teacher, the author has obviously used her passion for the subject to drive her writing, although in places it seems like O’Brien has been so desperate to display her knowledge surrounding the subject that it detracted from the flow of the book.  In particular, parts of Louis’ Crusade were so drawn out that just reading these sections felt slightly like a crusade in itself. Like most historical novels, Devil’s Consort probably takes a fair few liberties with the truth by filling in the blanks in order to make the story as interesting as possible, but from reading around the subject it seems O’Brien managed to stay fairly true to historical accounts. Whilst Eleanor is not the easiest character to love, I did empathize with her frustration at the misogynistic laws which rendered her largely impotent in comparison with her male counterparts.

Devil’s Consort’s main fault lies in its length and the author’s sense of timing.  Over the course of the novel the narrative varies from covering a few days in several pages to many years in one page, and there doesn’t seem to be a good balance. As O’Brien has chosen to document a real person’s life which readers may already be familiar with (even those who aren’t are greeted with an Aquitaine family tree before starting the story), I would have preferred a little more emotion and excitement into the writing in order to truly grip the reader.

Sadly, Devil’s Consort is not quite captivating enough to obtain the affections of those who don’t have the best relationship with historical novels. Overall, it was a decent read, particularly as the reader’s guide at the end gives you further suggested reading to delve more deeply into the historical background and more factual research into the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I am particularly excited to read more on what happened to Eleanor and Henry after the novel drew to a close.

Review: “Isla and the Happily Ever After” (AATFK #3) by Stephanie Perkins

The reason I’m writing this post literally minutes after my post on Lola and the Boy Next Door is because I don’t want to delay my thoughts on this adorable book for another 518 days like I did with the last one. Isla and the Happily Ever After is the end of Stephanie Perkins wildly successful YA romance trilogy, and quite possibly my favourite of the lot.

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Isla Martin has been in love with Joshua Wasserstein since she first saw him in ninth grade, but between Isla’s shyness and Josh’s misunderstanding of her relationship with her best friend Kurt, the two never managed to get on the same page. Suddenly it’s senior year, and these bicultural New Yorker/Parisians have started to figure things out, maybe a bit too late.

Isla is portrayed as a hot nerd, an exceptionally bright student with an autistic best friend, a voracious reader of adventure books and a teenager with no clue about what to pursue as a career. In contrast, Josh is supposed to be a tortured artist-cum-bad boy, at least as ‘tortured’ and as ‘bad’ as heroes can be in a Stephanie Perkins novel. He has a tattoo. He skips class by making up Jewish holidays. And the only reason he doesn’t get the highest grades in his class is because he doesn’t care. He is, however, an exceptional graphic artist and some of my favourite (and hottest) scenes from the book involve Josh and his art.

Josh and Isla

When they finally admit their attraction and begin to fall in love, Isla finds herself doing things that are out of character. She is studying less, spending less time with Kurt, and making choices that she’s not sure her parents would approve of. When she opts to sneak away from Paris with Josh for the weekend, she’s scandalized by doing something illicit, yet so delighted to have Josh all to herself. Of course, they get caught, and the consequences are dire.

But unlike Anna and Lola, which were all about the chracters overcoming their issues and finding each other, Isla tackles the question of what happens after you do get together. Can you live happily ever after if you think you don’t deserve it? It is the story of two teenagers who fall in love really hard and fast and then have to deal with the repercussions of “meant to be.”

This book is ridiculously sweet. It captures all of the things about teen love that I remember fondly: loving from afar, the intensity of teenage love affairs, the passion of the anger, the drama. Isla is a wonderfully complex character, with smarts and insecurities and charm. Josh is a dreamboat of a boy, full of rebellion and art and moods. They have wonderful chemistry and their relationship doesn’t shoot off like a gun, it’s a charming slow build that captures all of the things I remember with affection about being a teenager.

Two other reasons for Isla being my favourite book was because all the characters from Anna and Lola came together in the end and had a truly heartwarming scene. Possibly my favourite in the whole series. Also, it was really refreshing to see Josh and Isla’s relationship develop outside their boarding school, in Manhattan and Barcelona. Especially Barcelona.

Isla and the Happily Ever After is enjoyable because, like the previous two books, you can understand why they want to be together. It doesn’t simply come out of nowhere, and so I love that Stephanie Perkins has written about three completely different kinds of relationships, each with their own highs and lows. It was the perfect end for an amazingly sweet trilogy.

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Review: “Anna and the French Kiss” (AATFK #1) by Stephanie Perkins

So last night I got done making two projects on the same topic where I basically said that a law was progressive because the legislators decided to replace the word ‘workmen’ with ’employees’ 86 years after it was enacted. After faffing for some 10,000-odd words, I was tired as hell and decided to reward myself with something fun, foolish and light-hearted. I picked up Anna and the French Kiss, the first book in a trilogy by Stephanie Perkins. (Also because after feeling outraged on behalf of abused workers and the other book I’m reading being a tome on the history of Jerusalem, my soul had started reeking of pretentiousness :P).

Anna and the French Kiss cover

The book starts with Anna Oliphant (aka Banana Elephant), a girl from Atlanta, being sent to Paris by her wildly successful author father, whose writings are a mixture of Nicholas Sparks and John Green. Or as I like to think of him, Chetan Bhagat, if he did the world a favour and killed himself at the end of one of his god-awful books. Anna is heartbroken as she has left behind a loving mother, a cute baby brother, her OED-(Oxford English Dictionary, plebes)quoting, badass drummer best friend and the possibility of a romance with a cinema co-worker. Toph.

Who sends their kids to boarding school? It’s so Hogwarts Only mine doesn’t have cute boy wizards or magic candy or flying lessons.

As she sobs her heart out into her pillow, she gets invited by Meredith, the girl-next-door, for a chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) and they instantly become such good friends that she is now invited to sit at their lunch table with cool, boyish artist Josh, sarcastic yet lovable Rashmi (aka Rash, ouch) and our hero Etienne St Clair (As Chandler would say, “Could be BE more French?“).

The gang from Anna and the French Kiss

There’s an instant connection between Anna and St Clair. He is her physics lab partner. He takes her to see all the cool sights in Paris. He has an English accent and says “Fo’shiz”. He is basically your perfect high-school hero. But Anna still feels tied back to Toph. Even if she doesn’t like him that much. St Clair has a hot, older girlfriend, even though their relationship doesn’t seem to be going places.

Anna and the French Kiss checks all the boxes for what should be a fun, contemporary romance. It has the spark between two people, a slowly built rich relationship, strong secondary characters, witty banter and a subtext of important issues.

Home a Person not a Place

One of the best things about the story is Anna. She wants to be the country’s premiere film critic when she grows up. She doesn’t understand a word of French (“Here is everything I know about France: Madeleine and Amelie and Moulin Rouge”). She doesn’t have anything special which makes her stand out. But her voice in the writing is just so humorous and delightful that you can’t help but love her.

Etienne

St Clair is an equally dreamy and complex hero. He is 3 inches shorter than Anna but his personality and his “I-pretend-I-don’t-care-but-I-really-do” attitude makes that insignificant. He is witty and eloquent and still has his own set of problems like every other teenager. His interactions with Anna and his efforts to be moral despite his growing feelings for her makes for excellent tension throughout the story.

Rashmi Quote

What Perkins really nails in her debut novel, unlike countless other YA romances (yes, you, Twilight) is how the characters don’t straight away fall in love blindly. While both Anna and St Clair have a crush on the other, they start off as friends. Their relationship is built throughout the story and this makes for a very nice ending when the romantic tension is finally resolved.

Etienne's I love you

Another major plus for this book is how the author wasn’t afraid to show the not-so-nice side of her characters too. Anna has a strained relationship with her douchebag of a father, she isn’t the first to make up in a fight with her best friend and she likes two guys at the same time. St Clair has gigantic daddy issues and acts like a complete jerk when dealing with his problems. Hidden among the snappy one-liners and teenage angst are moments of subtle clarity which show how the characters evolve into better people. At the end, you can see how Etienne isn’t so bitter anymore and Anna is a lot more adventurous.

Anna Wish

This was supposed to be a short and sweet post. But as I wrote, I realised how many things there are to appreciate in this book. The humour. The numerous references to old films and French landmarks. Anna and the French Kiss is the textbook definition of a contemporary romantic dramedy. It’s one book I would recommend to everyone who loves a sweet (but not cavity-inducing) romance.

Needless to say, I have already started reading Lola and the Boy Next Door. You can find my very late review of it  here.