Lost Light: Words from the Overshadowed


Katherine Hauswirth


What is it that drives us to choose our long-term partners and, more importantly, what keeps us with them, especially if it turns out they disappoint us? It’s easy to look at another couple and see when there’s an imbalance. He is condescending, she dominates every decision; one of the pair holds the short end of the stick. Then there are the more dramatic cases, from the chronically cuckolded to the overtly abused. But when you’re in the thick of such a coupling, it’s surprisingly easy to lose your way, to forget who you were when it all began.

Paula McLain takes on the voice of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, in The Paris Wife. Hadley’s voice is well-developed and believable, so much so that it’s easy to forget this isn’t an actual memoir. It’s not difficult to understand the attraction of Hemingway to Hadley, or vice versa. The words Ernest chooses for Hadley allude to a deep admiration as well as the need for an anchor. Hadley is “everything good and straight and fine and true” to Hemingway, and she views Ernest as so alert and alive, a man who leaves a vast impression and has a vast appetite for life. She’s overcome, and the excitement of their early days in love and the life-changing move from Chicago to 1920s Paris is palpable.

For most readers, Ernest’s history of wives and dalliances is known at the outset of the book. But McLain’s portrayal of him is sympathetic and gives pause to sweeping judgment. While the book is largely written in Hadley’s voice, there’s an occasional interlude that gives us Ernest’s perspective, and he reads as a young and, well, earnest Ernest. When he first strays from his marital promise, it’s because he’s lost, visibly shaken by the horrors of war—not because he’s responding to titillation or craving variety.

The book’s a slow build; all the while during the couple’s brief marriage there’s the wait for the drop of the proverbial shoe. Hadley sets the stage for betrayal in the prologue, and the uncomfortable suspense the reader feels mirrors what Hadley herself must have felt with growing dread. In this rendering Ernest isn’t entirely self-centered, but his insatiable appetite for life just won’t rest. He feels everything acutely and wants everything, all at once. This culminates in wanting Hadley to share his affections with Pauline, an unabashedly smitten younger woman who becomes a cheerleader for Hemingway’s work. She lives with the couple for (from Hadley’s perspective) a painfully long while.

The book left me with a disturbing feeling, and it didn’t rise from the reminder that, yes, lovers cheat, sometimes repeatedly. More disturbing is Hadley’s perfect willingness to be engulfed, and eventually eclipsed, by Ernest’s work and ideas, even ideas that she finds repugnant. She consistently pushes her own needs and desires aside, and eventually, amid the heavy drinking and flitting from glamorous place to glamorous place with glamorous people, Hadley’s sense of self all but entirely fades away.

But this is a “live to tell novel” written in the past tense. We learn from Hadley as she looks back about how deeply people are affected by mental and emotional pain, but also how the memory of genuine love lasts in a place just as deep and influential. Perhaps Hadley should have left Hemingway sooner, but it’s as if she was in a fog that was at first dazzling and welcome, and then so thick she couldn’t find the gap that would grant her exit. It’s a relief to find that the fog does part, despite the pain that accompanies the clearing.

Unlike Paris Wife, Hungry for the World by Kim Barnes is an actual memoir, although there are parts that seem more like fiction than the novel. The first part of the book lingers over memories of simple childhood joy. Kim’s family lives in a logging camp and what speaks to her soul is the natural world just outside the trailer and the comings and goings of her seemingly contented father who, like Ernest to Hadley, is larger than life itself to Kim.

At some point Kim’s father turns to religion, in response to memories of his own father’s alcoholic ruin. He’s driven by a desire to make a sacrifice to his newfound God and feels called to abandon the simple woodsman’s life that suited the family so well. The family is pulled along, and the dictates and restrictions of their new, highly ordered life clash fiercely with Kim’s memory of a freer childhood, as well as the carnal stirrings that begin with Kim’s adolescence.

After some confused and frightening encounters with men, something turns sour inwardly for Kim; something drives her away from the light. She’s attracted to a dangerous man, one who seduces her by holding back. At first she feels enlightened by the celibate camaraderie they share, but when the sexual side of the relationship does come into play it’s immediately accompanied by graphic pornography that will later seem relatively mild. David orchestrates and manipulates; he infiltrates deep into Kim’s mind and gains an uncanny power that leaves her feeling increasingly desperate for his attention. She finds herself more and more sexually submissive, frequently partnering with others for David’s pleasure. She loses her job and breaks contact with friends and family, finding herself in a stifling swirl of oppression that culminates in frightening threats and a chilling encounter with evil intent.

Kim’s story, like Hadley’s, is ultimately one of finding her way out of a foreboding fog. Her emergence into a non-oppressed existence seems miraculous after the degradation she underwent. Each story ultimately conveys a sense of relief that each woman survived her relationship relatively intact, although quite a different woman from the innocent who met Ernest, or David. In their own ways, both protagonists acknowledge that their pasts are inextricably intertwined with their present lives and also inform the yet unwritten chapters. Kim sums it up, even while enjoying the love of the new family that now surrounds her: “I hear the sound of the river, the soft breathing of my son and daughter as they drift toward sleep. My husband reaches his hand across them, touches my face. I wonder if, at that moment, he knows how much I fear such a perfect world. For this is not a fairy tale. It is the story of a woman still struggling to understand what she is made of, all that she has been and might yet be.”

We’ve all had moments in our own fogs, our own shadows, albeit some less arresting than others. And it remains a mystery why in some couples one lover casts such a long shadow over the other, and why the overshadowed lover lingers there. It’s good to witness those who are obscured stumble out to once again stand, stronger and more independent, in the light.

Books mentioned in this column:
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books, 2011)
Hungry for the World by Kim Barnes (Villard Books, 2000)

Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



Contact Us || Site Map || || Article Search || © 2006 - 2012 BiblioBuffet