Tag Archives: World War I

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Ecco; 304 pages; $26.99).

greta wellsWho would we be if we had lived other lives?  Would we be ourselves or would we be altogether different people? Andrew Sean Greer forces us to ponder these existential matters in his third novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Lives, a deeply moving, atmospheric, and haunting tale.

“The impossible happens once to each of us,” Greer writes in his book’s first sentence.  Immediately, the reader knows this is a novel that will distinguish itself from others; Greer succeeds in producing a singular achievement that lingers in the imagination and in the heart.

In 1985, Greta Wells suffers.  Her brother, Felix, has died from AIDS, and her lover, Nathan, has left her:   “What is it, the missing of people?  It kills, and kills, and kills us.”  Depression plagues Greer’s main character but the possibility of a cure emerges in the form of electroconvulsive therapy.  Miserable and lonely, Greta decides she has nothing to lose.

After her first session, though, Greta experiences a rather curious phenomenon.  In bed the night of her treatment, Greta wishes Felix had not died and that Nathan had never left.  She closes her eyes and sees “one bright blue star floating there in the darkness, pulsing with light.” She thinks, “any time but this one,as the light splits and then splits again, “the throbbing blue stars dividing until they formed a circular cluster of light, and there was a kind of thunder.”  Her last recollection is falling into the radiance.  Her doctor had warned that she might experience confusion, but Greta is ill-prepared for this.

Greer transports Greta into the past to 1941 and 1918, where she is herself yet not herself.  In these periods, Greta is sister, lover, wife, and even mother.  People around her are the same, but their circumstances are different, much to Greta’s surprise.  “A shift in weather, and we are a different person.  The split of an atom, and we change.”

In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Greer effectively accomplishes a stunning feat in historical fiction by evoking qualities of not one but three past eras. From the beginnings of the battle on AIDS in 1985 to a nation on the brink of war in 1941 to a country recovering from the “war to end all wars” in 1918, Greer shows how Greta is powerless as the weight of the future bears heavily on her shoulders yet she cannot change anything.  She knows how World War II will take the lives of millions and change men’s and women’s roles forever.  Greta is all too aware of how soldiers returning from Europe have survived trenches and mustard gas only to be felled by the Spanish Flu.

Yet Greta can appreciate all the things that others take for granted.  She laments the beauties of the past eliminated in the name of progress.  Greta is “the only one who” knows “what would be lost.”

One constant remains: in each epoch, Greta is unhappy and pursues the same kind of electroconvulsive treatment she sought in 1985.  They will each keep switching lives as long as each Greta prefers a different present.  “If other worlds surround us, just a lightning bolt away, then what would stop us from slipping there?  If love has left us, well, then there is a world where it has not.  If death has come, then there is a world where it has been kept at bay.  Surely it exists, the place where all the wrongs are righted…”

Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer

In his newest novel, Greer concerns himself with righting imbalance; he wants to set things right in the world, and this motivation appears in his other works as well.  “A  mistake, made in another world.  And here: it could be righted,” he pens in his intriguing narrative.  The idea of romantic devotion is the focus of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and Greer’s use of time travel allows him to achieve equity where inequity once reigned.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is perfect for fans of Audrey Niffenegger’s  The Time Traveler’s Wife and the recent bestseller ( and one of my favorite novels) Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  As with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Greer makes the impossible possible, wonderful, and mesmerizing.  Upon closing the book, I was left with this question: “Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels?”  Indeed, why?

The_Impossible_Lives_of_Greta_Wells1

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Spotlight On Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the newest novel from Kate Atkinson–Life After Life.

life after life

 

About the Book:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.

Wildly inventive, darkly comic, startlingly poignant — this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best, playing with time and history, telling a story that is breathtaking for both its audacity and its endless satisfactions. –from Goodreads

 

 

About the Author:

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh. Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and has been a critically acclaimed international bestselling author ever since.

She is the author of a collection of short stories, Not the End of the World, and of the critically acclaimed novels Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Case Histories, and One Good Turn.

Case Histories introduced her readers to Jackson Brodie, former police inspector turned private investigator, and won the Saltire Book of the Year Award and the Prix Westminster. 

When Will There Be Good News? was voted Richard & Judy Book Best Read of the Year. After Case Histories and One Good Turn, it was her third novel to feature the former private detective Jackson Brodie, who makes a welcome return in Started Early, Took My Dog.–from Goodreads

I read this book yesterday and I was utterly enthralled.  I don’t believe I’ve ever literally wrung my hands or gnashed my teeth because of a book, but I did both those things while reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  The story left me spent, breathless, and eager to read it all again!

Look for my review soon.  In the meantime, get your hands on a copy!

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Book Review: Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris

Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris (Tyndale House Books; 400 pages; $13.99).

 

“Wars and plagues” can get people thinking it’s the end of the world.  Such a bleak outlook only worsens when American boys die on foreign soil, when families lose their homes to foreclosure, and when a dangerous flu ravages communities.  No, we’re not talking about wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Neither are we discussing America’s most recent economic crisis.  And no, this is not H1N1.  The place is Dead Lakes, Florida; the year is 1918.  World War I rages in Europe, and the Spanish flu rapidly spreads.  Ella Wallace, though, has more important things to worry about than wars and plagues in Michael Morris’ timely novel Man in the Blue Moon.

Ella, Morris’ protagonist, is a woman ahead of her time.  Ella’s future held great promise as a teen, when she dreamed of studying art in France.  That dream died when Harlan Wallace and his handle-bar mustache walked into Ella’s life.

Her aunt tried to warn Ella, “[Harlan’s] a gambler at best.  A con artist at worst.”  Ella paid her no attention, which was too bad because her aunt was right about Ella’s future husband: he was a gambler and a con artist.  After they married and their union produced three sons, another label was added to Harlan’s repertoire: alcoholic.

For Harlan, alcohol and gambling did not mix well.  Harlan placed a bet on a racehorse and lost Ella’s land, the inheritance her father passed down to her.  Before he died of typhoid fever, her father begged Ella never to sell her birthright.

One by one, Ella had been forced to sell her father’s possessions to pay off her husband’s debts.  “His gold watch, the diamond-studdied tie clip, and the curls of hair that her father had maintained until death belonged to President Lincoln” had all been sold.  The land was the only thing Ella had left and was very important to her.  You could even say the land was special.

“The tract of land that sat on the Florida panhandle was thick with pines and cypress.  An artesian spring fed a pool of water that local Indians claimed could remedy gout and arthritis.  The acreage had been in her family for two generations.”

Artist rendition of Ella’s land in Man in the Blue Moon

Harlan did not care.  He lost the property anyway to the story’s principal antagonist, banker Clive Gillespie, a vile, dishonest man.  To Clive’s chagrin, Harlan later won the land back in a drunken card game.  Things got worse when Harlan traded his alcohol addiction for opium.  One day, he just disappeared, leaving Ella to manage their country store alone.

This is not the life that Ella imagined.  She can’t help but think people talk about her reversal of fortune: “What has become of Ella Wallace?  What would her aunt think about her now?” she imagines them wondering.  For Ella, it is difficult raising three boys as a single mother while working and managing the store.  Ella and her family live a hardscrabble life.  One thing they have an abundance of is love.

When it comes to the world outside, though, sometimes Ella feels as if it’s her against the world.  Widows, she figures, are treated better than women whose husbands just up and disappeared.  The gossip-mongering citizens of Dead Lakes look down on her.  Ella, despite all the gossip and hateful looks, is proud and determined.

Ella needs that determined spirit once her mortgage comes due.  She reads in the newspapers about all the homes that the bank is foreclosing on.  Hers could be next, to Clive’s glee.

Clive has an agenda, and Ella stands in his way.  He has a reason for wanting Ella’s property, and he will fight and connive to get what he wants.

Ella is desperate to pay the note on the land’s mortgage.  But she can’t do it alone.  Then, as if in answer to a prayer, Harlan’s alleged cousin, Lanier Stillis, shows up in Dead Lakes.  He’s a rather shadowy and mysterious man, a picaresque hero, who proves his worth to Ella in a very unexpected way.  When a crisis hits close to home, Harlan again stands by Ella.  He seems to be a good and decent man.  But is he telling Ella the truth about his past?  Is Lanier Ella’s second chance at love?

Morris writes with a voice that is authentically Southern because he is Southern (he is a fifth-generation native of Perry, Florida).  Southern culture and Southern characters come naturally to him.  Because he is a Florida native, old Florida comes alive in his story.  Morris charms readers the same way the springs mesmerize those who come to take a dip in their magical waters.

Man in the Blue Moon is rich with historical details.  Morris carefully weaves key issues, people, and events into his story.  The strongest of these is his depiction of the 1918 Spanish Flu.  He uses a chant “I had a little bird/Its name was Enza/I opened up the window, and in-flu-enza.”  Variations of this rhyme were very popular during this time.  Morris also illustrates the anger of families whose sons returned home from battle only to die from the flu.  As the illness wreaks havoc in Dead Lakes, Morris shows how the flu devastated families, communities, and towns.

In addition to the flu epidemic, Morris also shows two very different ways of life in old Florida.  Ella and her family drive a horse and buggy; others own a car.  Cotton export is slowly giving way to fishing and tourism.  Morris even gives a nod to the oyster industry in nearby Apalachicola, the oyster capital of the world today.  As one way of life wanes, another dawns.  This is very apparent in Man in the Blue Moon.

With talk of a distant war, foreclosures, and a fatal flu, Morris gives readers a timely tale.  His story takes place almost a century ago, yet it is so relatable to us today.

If you love historical fiction, then Man in the Blue Moon is required reading for you.  Morris’ writing is always genuine and satisfying.  His story is a tale of one family’s struggle and of a town that will either come together or be torn apart.  There is much to admire within these pages, in particular the character of Ella.  I daresay she would fit in well in 2012; maybe she would have a blog and be part of She Reads.

Morris enthralls and captivates readers with Man in the Blue Moon, the She Reads November Book Club selection.  To discuss the story, connect with other readers, and even meet the author, go to She Reads.  Don’t forget to enter the extraordinary giveaways there, one of which is guaranteed to make your eyes sparkle.

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Saving Grace

Saving Grace

 The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Reagan Arthur Books; 288 pages; $24.99).

The sea can be unforgiving, mysterious, dangerous, and even brutal.  The ocean can cool and renew us, yet it also has the power to kill.  The water may look inviting, but that same liquid can be deceiving.  Curiously, the sea can be a metaphor for life.  Sometimes it’s sink or swim.  Sometimes we must dogpaddle to stay afloat.  Sometimes we are in danger of going under.

 

Sometimes we must make horrible choices in order to survive.  Such is the case in Charlotte Rogan’s gripping debut The Lifeboat.  The phrase “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” never rang truer.  Rogan’s main character, Grace Winter, despite her faults, is one of the strongest female characters I have encountered in a long time.

 

Grace manages to live through an excruciating ordeal, one in which many die.  The Lifeboat is chilling as Grace and others must struggle and sacrifice in order to survive.

When Rogan introduces us to Grace, she is widow on trial, along with two other women, for murder.  Her lawyers urge Grace to write an account of what occurred.  She reluctantly agrees and begins a diary.  Her narrative is the basis for Rogan’s story.

 

While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1914, there is an explosion on board the Empress Alexandra.  People shove others out of the way to get on lifeboats.  Grace’s new husband, Henry, forces her onto Lifeboat 14, but he does not follow.   Rogan draws eerily similar comparisons to Titanic, yet this is no love story.  Far from it.

 

Grace recalls, “There were bodies floating in the water, too, and living people clung to the wreckage….”  A toddler reaches out to her, but neither Grace nor any of the others save the child.  This is the first instance where the reader notices how cold and calculating Grace really is.  There is a detachment to her.  Perhaps it is her lack of emotion that helps her survive.

 

Many people are alive in the water.  Three swimmers approach the boat.  On the orders of an officer from the ship, Mr. Hardie, the oarsmen beat the men to death with the oars.  It is truly every man for himself.  The simple, hard fact is that “we could not save everybody and save ourselves.”

 

Mr. Hardie emerges as leader.  This makes sense given he knows the water.  Grace has confidence in his abilities.  In her eyes, Mr. Hardie “knew about this world of water” and “spoke its language.”  The less she understands his “rough seaman’s voice,” “the greater the possibility” that the sea understands him.  Out of necessity, Mr. Hardie makes some tough decisions.  Grace, though, perseveres in her support for him, or at least at first.

 

Because the boat is taking on water, it, in all likelihood, will sink.  The lifeboat supposedly has a capacity of 39 people and holds 38.  In actuality, the lifeboat is capable of holding much less than 39 people.

 

The lifeboat is overcrowded, a fact that is obvious to everyone.  Mr. Hardie asks for volunteers.  Several men and women jump out and into the sea to their deaths.  Soon, Mr. Hardie’s actions are questioned, especially by two women, Mrs. Grant and Hannah.  Mrs. Grant is appalled when Mr. Hardie does not turn back for the child.  She calls him a brute.  Just like that, Grace explains, “Mrs. Grant was branded a humanitarian and Hardie a fiend.”

 

A power struggle unfolds as food and water, necessities for survival, are hard to come by.  Grace’s allegiance to Mr. Hardie teeters.  It becomes obvious that she will support whoever suits her needs best.  She will cheer whoever has the advantage.  Clearly, Grace is interested only in saving herself.

 

The situation on the lifeboat grows bleaker.  At one point, a flock of birds falls dead into the lifeboat.  Both men and women eat the birds and gnaw the bones until they are bare of meat.  Blood runs down their chins.  Such a thing is implausible to me.  I wonder if this might be a veiled reference to cannibalism.  Perhaps the reality of the situation is such that Grace is unwilling and unable to call it what it truly is.

 

You just cannot trust Grace; she is definitely an unreliable narrator.  She often tells half-truths and even lies.  “It’s my experience that we can come up with five reasons why something happened, and the truth will always be the sixth,” she confides.  If this is part of her nature or if it is a result of the tragedy, Rogan chooses not to reveal.  It is through the eyes of the other survivors that Grace comes across as callous and manipulative.  Her cold and calculating nature is nothing new, however, as Rogan reveals.  Grace used these same tactics to lure her husband from another woman.  If you guess he came from money, you are correct.

Rogan plays with Grace’s memory and history in this novel.  When the others discount a memory on the stand, she emphatically denies what they say.  Grace’s memory and history are at odds.  Grace also retreats into herself on the lifeboat.  She withdraws into her own mind to what she calls the “Winter Palace.”  Her retreat may partly explain why she has no recollection of certain events.  Then again, maybe it is her plan all along.  One thing is certain, though: over time, the situation on the lifeboat grows more tenuous and more perilous.

 

The power struggle between Mr. Hardie and Mrs. Grant and Hannah comes to a head.  Grace plays a major role in this battle, which is the reason she is on trial.  Rogan writes this with suspense.

 

It is interesting that three women are on trial.  If circumstances had been different, I do not feel Mr. Hardie would be accused of murder.  It is as if, in 1914 at least, a woman’s place was to create, sustain, and nurture life.  Not take it.  People expect a man to fight, even defend himself if the scenario demands.  Why shouldn’t the same be true for a woman?

 

A lifeboat takes on ironic meanings in Rogan’s novel.  Lifeboats are lifesaving vessels.  They are places of refuge and salvation.  In this book, though, the lifeboat takes on a whole different sense.  It becomes a deathtrap.

 

I recommend The Lifeboat to anyone who is fascinated with Titanic.  I also would suggest the novel for those who enjoy Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  I do want to warn you that there is no romance, no magic here.  The Lifeboat is sometimes bloody, sometimes chilling, and always shocking.  It will literally give you goosebumps.

 

More than anything, Grace Winter is a survivor, and you must respect her for having the will to save herself.  Grace never gives up.  Whether you are at sea or navigating the shark-infested waters of life, Grace can teach us all something.  Sometimes we all have to struggle in order to get through this life.

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American Dreams

American Dreams

 A Good American by Alex George (Amy Einhorn Books; 387 pages; $25.95).

 

            What does it mean to be a good American?  Does such a concept exist or is it only a pipedream?  Who decides anyway?  And if you are an immigrant, how can you become a true American?  These are all questions Alex George poses in his novel A Good American.  At its heart, the book is a story of a family and their love for one another and for a place they call home.  George, though, takes it further, giving us a distinctly American tale of immigrants.  Their story is our story, too.

 

Love brings Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer to America.  In Hanover, Germany, in 1903, Frederick first serenades Jette in a garden.  Jette’s mother opposes the romance, to no avail.  Then, Jette becomes pregnant and steals her grandfather’s medal given to him by the Kaiser.  Frederick fears Jette’s mother will mistakenly believe he is the thief and turn him in to the authorities.  Their solution is to leave Germany for America.

 

Their destination is New Orleans and not New York, which means the Meinsenheimers’ experience will be different from the usual one.  Neither speaks a word of English.  Frederick has never even heard of New Orleans, “That’s in America?  The United States?”  Jette assures him it does not really matter where they go: “New York, New Orleans, what’s the difference?  They’re both New.  That’s good enough.”  While on the ship to New Orleans, Frederick and Jette marry and decide to settle in Missouri.

 

Once in New Orleans, Frederick explores what he can of the exotic American city.  Frederick loves music, and the sounds of jazz lure him to a bar in the French Quarter.  He has never heard jazz before and proclaims it “chaotic and loud, but full of hope and life.”  It is, he believes, the “perfect new music for his new country.”  So begins Frederick’s “rapturous love affair with America.”  Whatever homesickness he may feel is “eradicated by his first excursion onto the streets of America.  Everything he’d seen had been unimaginably different from the dry, dour streets of Hanover, and to his surprise he was not sorry in the slightest.”  Frederick is absolutely “smitten by the beguiling otherness of it all.”  His affair with his new country continues until the day he dies.

 

Frederick and Jette never reach their destination.  Jette goes into labor in Beatrice, Missouri, and there they stay.   In his adopted home city, Frederick sets out to be a good American.  For Frederick, this means many things: learning English, being a good husband and a good father to Joseph and Rosa, and saving to buy the business where he works.  He does all these things; Frederick buys a bar and turns it into a fine-dining establishment.  For Frederick, being a good American also means fighting in World War I, against the country where he was born.

 

George writes A Good American with broad scope as he takes us from World War I to the present.  He paints a portrait of a nation on the cusp of becoming a superpower.  Interestingly, the same could be said of the Meisenheimers.  As the family develops and grows, as each generation must answer the question of how to be a good American, the United States also changes and grows.  The Meisenheimers and the United States come of age together.  This concept is apparent in later generations of Frederick and Jette’s progeny.  The restaurant Frederick is so proud of morphs in each generation, just as the country’s tastes change.  Over the years, Frederick’s becomes a diner and then finally a Mexican restaurant.  Although George never says it outright, I do feel he himself would never define what it means to be a good American.

 

In A Good American, George continues the family saga through to the present-day with James, the narrator, Joseph’s son.  Two generations after Frederick and Jette, James is unconcerned about fitting into a country.  He feels like he does not even fit in with his family; he thinks he is an outsider.  He does not fit in with his boisterous brothers and would rather play chess instead.  James is fond of his aunt and reading the novels of P.G. Wodehouse.  A discovery later in his life leaves him reeling.  I am left reeling, too, since George makes the reader feel like a part of the story.  That is the beauty of A Good American: I feel as if I know these people; I feel as if the Meisenheimers are family.

 

Never before have I read a novel with such an interesting and hilarious cast of characters.  In addition to the Meisenheimers, George introduces us to a preacher who believes he has witnessed the Second Coming, an evil bicycle-riding dwarf, and a young Harry Truman.  As much as I love the character of Lomax, an African-American cornet player from New Orleans, I see him as too much of a “Bagger Vance” type character.  Lomax helps Jette; he helps Rosa; he helps Joseph.  Once he is no longer needed, the character exits the story.  I, for one, think George could have done more with Lomax.

 

George writes A Good American with feeling and truth, perhaps partly because he is an immigrant, too.  George lives, works, and writes in Missouri, but he was born in England.  He moved to the United States in 2003 and has worked as a lawyer before becoming a writer.

 

At its heart, A Good American is an immigrant’s tale.  The author is an immigrant, and the story is about a family of immigrants.  George’s story is a tale that can be seen as representative of an idealized representation of emigration into the United States.  George writes, “Almost every family living in the United States today has a story similar to this one somewhere in its past.  Whether ten years ago or three hundred years ago, whether through due process or by way of a midnight ghosting across an unmanned border, whether by slave boat or luxury airplane, we all came here from somewhere.”  No truer words were ever written.

 

 

 

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1920s Paris a Heady World

I wanted to love Paula McLain’s second novel The Paris Wife, and so I was disappointed when I did not like it.  McLain writes about the first wife of the great American novelist Ernest Hemingway.  You’ve probably never heard of her; I had not.  Her name was Hadley Richardson.

McLain relied on Hemingway’s own work, A Moveable Feast, to tell her story.  Her aim, though, was “to push deeper into the emotional lives of the characters and bring new insight to historical events, while staying faithful to the facts.”  The people in the book are real, the places they go are the actual places these characters went, the events described truly happened.  However, I wonder if the phrases used were actually what was said.  Over time, our memories change and sometimes those memories can be wrong.

Hadley Richardson met Ernest Hemingway in 1920 in Chicago.  After a short courtship, they marry and go to Paris to live.  This was just after Hemingway’s participation in World War I; the war had changed him.  Hadley was several years his senior, but he had seen far more than she.  Hemingway “had looked into the faces of the dead and tried not to remember anything in particular.”  He often said that he died in the Great War, “just for a moment; that his soul had left his body like a silk handkerchief, slipping out and levitating over his chest.  It had returned without being called back.”

People like Hemingway took greater risks then than those who had not seen death.  He lived fast, he lived hard.  He experienced things with more emotion than others did.  McLain does a wonderful job of showing readers that.  She also illustrates how hard he worked to succeed as an author, even after multiple rejections.  He seemed to know, despite the naysayers, that he was destined for literary greatness.

Too bad he didn’t feel the same about being a husband and father.  McLain writes that Hemingway was concerned with meeting the “right” people in Paris and he did.  He and Hadley hobnobbed with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, among others.  Too often, this novel becomes a list of names and places and events, such as “In ___, we went to ______, where we stayed with ______.  _______ told us _________.”  There is simply too much of it.

Hemingway, in my eyes, comes across as egotistical and apathetic toward Hadley.  He is not a good husband.  I found myself hating him.  Yet, Hadley did not win favor in my eyes, either.  As McLain portrays her, she is a fool who silently takes what her husband dishes out.  She does whatever he says to do.  Hemingway makes all the decisions; she’s just along for the ride.  Even when Hemingway seems to invite a threesome into her bed (with the woman who will become his second wife), Hadley does not protest.  I felt nothing for her.

What McLain does do brilliantly, though, is bring 1920s Paris to life.  I was awed.  Paris becomes the book’s third major character, and the novel is better for it.

I applaud McLain for showing glimpses of a very depressed and unhappy man, a man who went on to commit suicide later in his life.  The book is titled The Paris Wife, but it is Hemingway who steals the show…even when he’s obnoxious, rude, indifferent, and adulterous.  This is his book.

 

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