We’ve asked a number of our team members to share their views and thoughts on a variety of books which might be suitable if you’re thinking of moving overseas.
This month Laurie Hibbert, HR Director – EMEA, gives her views and thoughts based on her own experiences on The Paris Wife, a 'based on fact' novel written by Paula McLain. Laurie was born and raised in New Zealand then spent her high school years in Australia. Since joining Crown Laurie has lived and worked for three months in New Jersey, 18 months in Singapore, 18 months in Hong Kong and three years in the Netherlands before making her home in the UK eight years ago.
Written in the voice of Hadley Richardson, first wife of the renowned author Ernest Hemingway, the story explores Hadley's struggles with her roles as a woman—wife, lover, muse, friend, and mother—and tries to find her place in the intoxicating and tumultuous world of Paris in the twenties.
The story starts with the meeting of Hadley and Ernest in Chicago. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and depart for Paris. There, despite the love they undoubtedly share, the excitement of discovering such a vibrant city, and their wide circle of bright and beautiful friends, things start to lose their edge.
At one point, Ernest travels on assignment, leaving Hadley to experience quite unexpected loneliness:
“I couldn’t enjoy much of anything except walking to the Ile St Louis to the park…I liked to look around at the houses surrounding the park, and wonder about the people who filled them, what kind of marriages they had and how they loved or hurt each other on any given day, and if they were happy and whether they thought happiness was a sustainable thing. I’d stay in the park as long as I could, and then walk home through sunshine I couldn’t quite feel.”
Ernest returns and equilibrium is briefly restored, but under the demands of work, his moods, the infidelity of friends and regular over-indulgence in alcohol, the marriage starts to unravel. A later incident, when Hadley leaves a satchel containing Ernest’s writings on a train – soon after followed by the realisation and confession that she is pregnant with a child they had not planned – brings their relationship to breaking point.
Enter Pauline Pfeiffer, at first glance a generous friend of Hadley, but soon to be revealed as lover and ultimately second wife of Ernest. A telling scene is played out between the two women in the early days of their friendship, made all the more poignant by what is to come. Hadley and Ernest have taken “Pfife” with them on holiday. Up in the Austrian mountains and away from the glamour and glitz of Paris, the Vogue journalist realises that the clothes she’s brought with her are inappropriate:
“‘Nothing I’ve brought will do here. Do you mind lending me some of your things?’ Hadley, taking off her slippers and handing them to her, responds ‘You can have these, I’ll wear Ernest’s. That’s what marriage does to you, by the way. Somewhere along the line you discover you have your husband’s feet’. Pfife smiles. ‘I wouldn’t mind that’."
The story ends as it was always destined to. Hadley and Ernest go their separate ways, Ernest carries on to write a number of very fine books, to marry and divorce Pauline Pfeiffer - and her successor - and to marry one last time, before ultimately ending his life by his own hand as he had so often threatened to do. Hadley lives out her life with her second husband, hearing of Ernest’s death with some sadness, but no surprise.
If The Paris Wife sounds a bleak tale then I’ve not done it justice, as Paula McLain movingly portrays Hadley’s character - her resilience, her integrity, her intellect and her determination to love - and to carry on loving past the point of it being fashionable or finding favour.
The author also captures, quite perceptively, the sometimes grubby reality of expat life. For what do people do when they find themselves in foreign lands, amongst strangers, unable to easily communicate, cut loose from their past?
In my experience, what happens is sometimes not too dissimilar to the story told here. In today’s expat world, although we might not find the intellectual and cultural giants who lived and played in Paris in the '20s (Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound et al), we do find loneliness. We do find people who drink too much. We do find people befriending people they would not countenance “back home”. We do find people seduced by fame or fortune. We do find people compromising previously strongly held conviction. We do find people adrift.
Of course we also find boundless creativity, great personal growth, cultural barriers broken down, prejudices proved indefensible, families brought closer together, workplaces being enriched, businesses performing better and, on occasion, a really good book being written.
Paula McLain has given us a really good book. It is certainly not a guidebook to expat life, to Paris, to the bullfighting circuit or to the art of marriage, though it does touch on all of these. It is a book that would appeal to those who have an interest in Hemingway and to those who recognise the truth that behind - or more likely beside - every great man is an equally great woman whose story “his”tory has tended to ignore.
On an “enjoyment” scale of one to five I would award The Paris Wife a rating of four. Although I could put the book down in between chapters, I was always keen to get back to it. On a “useful for someone relocating to Paris” scale I’m afraid we’re looking at a two. The Paris of the 1920s really is not the Paris of now, although the English language bookshop Shakespeare and Company is still well worth a visit. On a “cautionary tale” scale The Paris Wife scores a very big five!