Our most recent book club selection was The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, a novel about Ernest Hemingway's first wife Hadley and their time in Paris, hanging out with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and F.Scott Fitzgerald and all those literary types. I have to admit, that after reading the book about Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress, I'm a little tired of reading books about women whose main claim to fame is that they married famous men. Now, these men were also famously difficult, and I'm willing to believe that interesting people pick interesting spouses, but surely we can find a book about a woman who did something besides get hitched.
This book, along with the FLW book, lives in some sort of cross-genre where it's not fact and not quite fiction. The authors do a crap-ton of research, reading public records, newspapers, letters, and journals to put together a picture. And then they fill in the details with their imaginations. No doubt after immersing yourself in someone else's life for a while, you probably do feel like you know them. So while we know that Hadley went to Chicago at this time and met Ernest, we don't necessarily know what she wore or what she said or how she felt about it. Maybe she left journals, so we do know some of those things, but at some point, the author has to put together everything she knows about a person from the research and make a good guess. For some reason, this bugs me, but I can't put my finger on why. I think it's because the lines between verifiable fact and imagined fact are so blurry. We should have a name for this genre, just to stress that there is some fantasy involved. How about "research-based speculative autobiographical novel?" Catchy, huh?
Regardless of whether Ms. McLain gets her material from an old journal or from inside her head, I can tell you that she nails certain aspects of being involved with an artist, a topic that I have some familiarity with. For one thing, Hadley is very self-conscious about being just a regular sort of person, surrounded by all these geniuses. Almost everyone Josh and I spend time with on a regular basis is some kind of artist. And I am a software engineer. Even if I think there is a certain artistry in writing code, I can't help but feel sort of square and boring around people whose brains are surely more colorful than mine. In fact, I sometimes am at a loss as to why my artist was attracted to me. Not that I am not awesome in my own number-based way, but it seems like he would want someone who is on that wavelength. Then again, I am coming from a position of someone who has always been drawn to artists. Maybe he is someone who is attracted to engineers, and who can even explain these things anyway? Josh sometimes worries because I spend 8 hours every weekday surrounded entirely by men who also think like me (and who also make a lot more money than a starving artist). Aside from most of them being middle-aged and married, I have found software engineers in general to be lacking in imagination. They do not melt my butter.
Hadley also feels like she has to compete with her husband's work. Maybe this could be true for any profession. But the thing about art is that it can happen any time. I do not resent his time spent waiting tables, nor even his practice time with the band, because those are scheduled events. But sometimes, we are just sitting at the house and inspiration hits him and he has to go write. Then I get all whiny, because I feel like I already get so little of him as it is, and we have a little fight. This is bad, bad, bad. For me to set myself as being in any way against his work is going to cause problems; I figured that out with regards to the band a long time ago. Even if I "win," there will be resentment, bubbling, festering resentment. So I really can't win this one. I have to let it go.
Of course, having related so much to parts of the Hemingway's marriage, it was very hard not to use a little faulty logic to jump to the conclusion that the rest of it applied as well, mainly the part about Ernest Hemingway being a rotten cheater. It was doubly worrisome reading this right after getting engaged. Everything that happens nowadays is colored through the lens of being about to jump off the commitment cliff. So I have to relax, and tell myself that I am not marrying Ernest Hemingway (who wrote a whole book comparing being married to being impotent). I can't read a research-based speculative autobiographical novel about Hemingway's first wife and imagine that I can assume anything about my own relationship, any more than I can assume that I know much of anything about the actual Hadley Hemingway.