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The Paris Wife, The Art Thief, Love and Shame, and How It All Began

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The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books, $25.00)
The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of the artistic giants who came to Paris in the 1920’s. It is also the story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, and how their relationship developed and eventually fell apart during the six years of their marriage. Paula McLain has done extensive research on her subject and tells a compelling story without becoming judgmental.
Hadley is a solidly built, sporty, and mildly rebellious young woman of 29 when she meets Hemingway, only 21, in Chicago while visiting a friend from her hometown of St. Louis. She is smart and a talented pianist, but not sophisticated or stylish, and lacks the rapier wit so valued in this era. He is a young and determined writer who is drinking hard and fighting hard. He cannot sleep without a light on; being injured in WWI has left him older than his years and with what today would be diagnosed as PTSD. They share strong emotional bonds of controlling mothers and fathers who commit suicide.
They marry and plan on going to Italy, but playwright Sherwood Anderson convinces them that Paris is the place for a writer to be. “Everything’s interesting and everyone has something to contribute. Paris, Hem, give it some thought.” Once there they encounter Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, among other literati, and become part of a world of endless parties, hard drinking, and sexual adventuring. 

Hemingway at times exhibits jealousy toward his more financially successful compatriots, eventually even writing a scathing parody, The Torrents of Spring, of his early supporter Sherwood Anderson. Nearly everyone who reads it, including his close friend Gertrude Stein who ends their relationship over this book, feels it is mean-spirited and ungrateful of him to publish, but he persists.
The perfect “starter” wife, Hadley is endlessly supportive of Hemingway’s needs and wants. She completely subjugates her own needs to his, partly out of a deep love and partly out of respect for his genius.
Hadley becomes pregnant and gives birth to their son Bumby. Hemingway loves his son but also feels encumbered by the responsibilities of fatherhood. Hadley is Ernest’s head cheerleader, but never quite fits into the world she now inhabits; she is a little awkward and a little in awe of the geniuses around her. By nature, she is more conventional than they. Not really interested in style, she also lacks the funds to dress as her friends do and is not as thin as fashion decrees. She knows she is competent as a pianist, but lacks the confidence to pursue a concert career in a more than dilatory
Hemingway, in the meantime, immerses himself in this culture, and spends most of his time with friends or writing in a small room he has rented for that purpose.  Eventually, on their pilgrimage to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, he meets Duff Twysden and has his first serious affair. She becomes the model for Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. Hadley reads between the lines of the manuscript and is devastated not only because she is quite sure of his infidelity, but more because she plays no part in the book and thus, she is afraid, in his mind and heart.
When the couple becomes close friends with Pauline Pfeiffer and her sister, Pauline becomes a serious sounding board for Hemingway’s work, where Hadley is the cheerleader. It does not take long for Hadley’s growing suspicions to be confirmed; he is once more involved with another woman, this time more seriously. Hemingway begs her to stay and allow his alliance with Pauline to continue in the open, with all three remaining friends, but Hadley cannot handle such an arrangement. She picks herself up and returns to the U.S. with Bumby. Pauline becomes the second of Hemingway’s three wives, and Hadley moves on to a successful if less passionate second
Is this a repeat of the “starter wife” syndrome with which we are all familiar, or the story of a woman who believes so thoroughly in her husband’s genius that she totally devotes her life to its furtherance? Could Hadley just not keep up, or was her love for Hemingway a safe haven for him that he finally felt was not enough for him? Was she just a little too thick to fulfill all his needs, or could no one woman have sufficed?
Toward the end of his life Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.
Of course, McLain takes us to Paris during one of the most glittering periods in American literature. These expatriates define brilliance, while rejecting the usual mores, and it is worthwhile reading if only to get a sense of what it was like to inhabit that time and place.—Cynthia Taubert

The Art Thief by Noah Charney (Washington Square Press, $15).
Fast paced, intriguing entanglements plus a storyline sustained through an action-oriented writing style create a grand adventure into the world of stolen art. The author, founder of the first international think tank on art crime, maintains interest through both detectives’ capers and a rich tapestry of art details.
Settings vary from the cultural centers of contexts of the artistic connoisseur—antique houses, museums and private galleries.
Seasoned insights enrich the story line. For example, the author points out the two primary motivations for art theft—a work commissioned for filching or as an added piece fora private collection. After all, the work cannot be sold on the open market.
Confrontational interchanges reinforce the high stakes and emotional involvement of art world participants. Witness this phone conversation of a Parisian curator with a London Christie Auction House administrator:  “I’m telling you it’s a fake... How am I so sure? Because the painting is here...in the vault in the basement.” Earthy insults reinforce the humanness and undermine the civil stereotypes of art world transactions.
Vivid details of the principle players add resonance. Here the reader encounters Detective Gabriel Coffin who prefers three piece suits, French cuffs, a bowler hat, a mahogany cane, basset hounds, eating lobster without utensils and chocolate bars with a knife and fork. Though considering himself an intellectual, he plays poker on alternate Tuesdays with a policeman, a plumber and a mechanic. He muses that these three are among the most intelligent but least intellectual men he knows. A closing value-added section offers readers book club discussion questions, “A Conversation with Noah Charney,” plus related books and films.—Virginia H. Jones

Love and Shame and Love by Peter Orner (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99).
Don’t be put off by the flat-footed title of this new novel.  Set mainly in the Windy City and Highland Park, Love and Shame and Love opens with an epigraph from Saul Bellow: “In Chicago I had unfinished emotional business.”  The novel then chronicles, in highly original fashion, the lives and loves of three generations in a Chicago Jewish family, filtering events and perceptions through the consciousness of its third-generation protagonist, Alexander Popper.
Peter Orner, who grew up locally and now teaches creative writing at San Francisco State, has produced a lyrical, literary, and playful novel.  The narrative is not a straight chronology with standard prose chapters, but rather a series of vignettes, some of them almost poetry, that gradually develop the main character’s perspective on life. The book also features captivating pen and ink illustrations by Eric Orner, the writer’s brother.
Lake Michigan is a felt presence in the novel, and Orner lards the text with references to familiar local places (e.g., the Pump Room, the Standard Club), as well as to social and political events from the second half of the twentieth century. Various Chicago personalities also make the scene:  Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, the first Mayor Daley, Irv Kupcinet. Throughout, Popper evinces a kind of Stoical sadness about life and its vicissitudes. In the final scene, he stands by the shore of Lake Michigan in January, studying the colors in front of him and the “jagged breakers rising out of the water like broken teeth.”  Reflecting on his life he thinks, “The lake is always east. East is always the lake.  Anywhere else he’s ever been he never knows where he is.”
Like Sandburg’s famous poem, Love and Shame and Love is a complex portrait of Chicago -- and to Sandburg’s string of epithets for the City of the Big Shoulders, Orner’s book might be said to add Shaper of Destinies. The novel is a rich addition to the shelf of literature about life here along the lake.—Julie West Johnson

How It All Began by Penelope Lively (Viking, $26.95). Drawing upon the theory of the butterfly effect, which suggests that even the rustle of air caused by the wings of an insect half a world away can impact us all, author Lively, always the astute observer of modern English life, creates a chain of unanticipated events set in motion by the mugging of elderly Charlotte Rainsford.  Unexpectedly—or perhaps not so unexpectedly—Charlotte’s life and those around her change in new and interesting ways.
 Charlotte recovers in the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Rose and Gerry.  Charlotte is surprised to learn that Gerry is not quite as boring as she had believed and never learns that Anton, the immigrant to whom she teaches English, falls in love with Rose and that Rose reciprocates that feeling.  Furthermore, Rose’s employer, a self-important retired historian who imagines that the world eagerly awaits his new television series on 18th century English life, finds himself confronting his personal assistant and BBC TV executives who are eager to exploit his knowledge and just as ready to abandon the project when complications arise. Throw into the mix a relationship that teeters back and forth between the comfort of married life and the fear of the unknown reality of divorce and Lively has stirred the cauldron thoroughly enough to keep her reader
absorbed once again.
Lively explores the power of both stories and chance in our lives. “Powerful things, stories,” Charlotte tells Anton. The story of each life in this slim novel and how each is connected to the other as delicately as the wings of an insect is a delight.
—By Susan E. Zinner

Published: April 14, 2012
Issue: Spring 2012 Issue