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Genius and Madness
Psychiatric News
Volume 47 Number 6 page 7b-7b

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) shared his formative writing years in Paris with Hadley, his first wife. The Paris Wife is Paula McLain’s transparent and failed attempt to immortalize Hadley as a sympathetic historical figure.

Hadley’s depressive symptoms and dependent personality make her more pathetic than sympathetic. She unabashedly trots after Hemingway as he makes his writing—and himself—his priorities.

The novel succeeds, however, at transporting readers through the rollercoaster of highs and lows that defined the glittering world of 1920s Paris and the superb writers who lived there at that time. McLain’s historical account of Hemingway’s grandiosity, flight of ideas, rapid mood swings, and passions seems credible. Intrigued readers might hypothesize that he suffered from bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and alcohol dependence. These disorders, along with his genetic predisposition for mental illness (attributable to an extensive family history of suicide), contributed to Hemingway’s instability, love affairs, and eventual death by suicide.

Expatriate American writers such as Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein appear in the novel as eccentric figures who helped advance Hemingway’s career from cub reporter to Pulitzer-Prize recipient. Readers also catch fascinating glimpses of Hemingway’s kindling friendships with other famous writers. For example, Hemingway and friends try to make sense out of James Joyce’s stream of consciousness style in the newly published and acclaimed Ulysses, while others are baffled by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s love for his seemingly aloof and psychotic wife, Zelda.

Despite McLain’s sad description of Hadley as an old-fashioned woman, the author puts onto paper vivid descriptions of writers who have shaped our world. The Paris Wife is a playground for literary aficionados and psychiatrists curious about the relationship between genius and madness.  inline-graphic-1.gif

Helen M. Farrell, M.D., is an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a staff psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Helen M. Farrell, M.D., is an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a staff psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

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