I’m stuck in the 1920’s

I recently read three books in a row that are set in New York or in Paris in the 20’s.  I’m sure this is not going to be a brilliant review that highlights much about how the three books similarly illuminate the era, but I found it interesting to have the continuity throughout and I wanted to explore my thoughts here.

All three of these books are a glimpse into a vanished era and into the decadent mood of the 20s.   I thought the 20s were quite similar to today, the way we’re up against a conservative backlash in the country not unlike prohibition and the way that, of course, people still talk behind each other’s backs and “the public” is almost another character, influencing decisions and actions.  Women had great freedom then too, which surprised me.

The first was The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal by Lily Koppel.  From Booklist’s review: “In 2003, Koppel, a writer for the New York Times, stumbled upon an amazing discovery: the decades-old diary of a privileged teenaged Manhattanite penned. Fascinated by entries detailing theater expeditions, shopping sprees, love interests, and grand ambitions, she put her journalistic skills to good use, tracking down the original owner of this faded and cracked red-leather treasure. Elated to discover 90-year-old Florence Wolfson alive, alert, and eager to share her memories of a bygone time and place, Koppel began interviewing Florence, interweaving the brief diary entries with more detailed personal anecdotes infused with the type of glamour and sophistication associated with a 1930s romantic comedy.” –Margaret Flanagan

The next book I read was for my bookclub: One Sunday Morning: A Novel by Amy Ephron.  I’d read Ephron’s A Cup of Tea and loved it, but this one was disappointingly rushed.  From Booklist review: “The time period Ephron has selected here is the 1920s; her chosen settings are New York and Paris. It’s the Jazz Age in cities where old traditions still rise, as imposing as the mansions lining Fifth Avenue, but also where new views and different modes of behavior have blossomed in the wake of the recent world war. Through the prism of the lives of four well-heeled, socially connected women friends, Ephron casts a subtle drama arising from this conflict between old behavior and new, as scandal threatens to ruin the reputation of one of the women. This is Edith Wharton territory, and although it is not rendered quite as profoundly as the work of that master, it is, perhaps, rendered more sprucely, in a style more compelling to contemporary readers.” — Brad Hooper

The third and my favorite was The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain.  (The photo above is of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway on their wedding day, 1921.)  McLain says of her book: “Beneath the man or myth [of Hemingway], or some combination of the two, is another Hemingway, one we’ve never seen before. Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, is the perfect person to reveal him to us — and also to immerse us in the incredibly exciting and volatile world of Jazz-age Paris.

“The idea to write in Hadley’s voice came to me as I was reading Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his early years in Paris. In the final pages, he writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” That line, and his portrayal of their marriage — so tender and poignant and steeped in regret — inspired me to search out biographies of Hadley, and then to research their brief and intense courtship and letters — they wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of delicious pages to another!

“I couldn’t help but fall in love with Hadley, and through her eyes, with the young Ernest Hemingway. He was just twenty when they met, handsome and magnetic, passionate and sensitive and full of dreams. I was surprised at how much I liked and admired him — and before I knew it, I was entirely swept away by their gripping love story.  I hope you will be as captivated by this remarkable couple as I am — and by the fascinating world of Paris in the 20’s, the fast-living, ardent and tremendously driven Lost Generation.”

Yes! This tender book is beautiful and I recommend it highly, and I’m not even a huge Hemingway fan.  I love learning more about a story that I thought I already knew, even if it is fiction based on fact.  I also like to hear history told from another point of view, here from a spouse that was more on the sidelines of the action. 

“Hemingway is all nervous purpose, ambition and charisma as he meets Hadley and is drawn to her quiet strength and ordinary American sweetness. In his youth and uncertainty, she is his rock and yet we already suspect that as he grows in artistic power, she will become an unwanted anchor. Through Hadley’s eyes and plain-speaking voice, we see all of twenties Paris and the larger-than-life artists who gather in the cafes. We drink tea with Gertrude Stein and champagne with Fitzgerald and Zelda. We run with the bulls in Pamplona and spend winters in alpine chalets. And we see, through her love for him, the young writer becoming the Hemingway of legend. Perhaps it is the nature of all great artists to be completely selfish and obnoxious, but Hadley’s voice is always one of compassion. Even as Hemingway leaves her completely out of The Sun also Rises, even as Hemingway publicly flirts with other women, she continues to explain and defend him. It is a testament to Paula McLain that the reader is slow to dislike Hemingway, even as he slowly and inexorably betrays Hadley’s trust. I loved this novel for its depiction of two passionate, yet humanly-flawed people struggling against impossible odds–poverty, artistic fervor, destructive friendships–to cling on to each other.” — Helen Simonson, the New York Times bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

I’d like to read more:

A Moveable Feast – Hemingway’s account of the same time

Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife – Gioia Diliberto (will be released Sept 6, 2011)

French Lessons – Ellen Sussman


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