When is a Prologue Necessary? Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife

8683812When does a novel require a prologue? Never, many would argue. Ask any agent, editor or wizened veteran of the novel-writing craft: if you can dispense with a prologue, do. And yet, so many novels have prologues. What gives?

This is a craft issue that has interested me for a long time, the more so now, as I embark on a new draft of a novel I’ve been working on. At a recent literary event at which Paula McClain was a featured author, a friend mentioned the prologue to The Paris Wife, and how highly he thought of it. I’d read the book a few years ago and loved it, in part because of my long-term interest in the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, but mostly because it’s just such an ambitious, beautiful, readable novel. But I hadn’t paid much attention to the underlying structure, and I picked it up a few days ago to re-read the prologue.

In common with the rest of McClain’s novel, the prologue is beautifully written. It gives us our first taste of the book’s voice, which is a lovely voice steeped in the language and rhythms of the period, one that McClain succeeds in maintaining throughout the novel. But the voice could just as easily have been introduced in Chapter One, and the question I was interested in was, is McClain’s prologue necessary? After re-reading it a few times, I think it is. Here are two reasons:

The first reason is that it sets the stage for the novel’s action in an alluring way, evoking for the reader some important elements of the book’s historical setting: the lingering trauma of WWI and the legendary ambiance of 1920s Paris:

“Interesting people were everywhere just then. The cafés of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers. On any given night, you could see Picasso walking from Sant-Germain to his apartment in the rue de Grands Augustins, always exactly the same route and always looking quietly at everyone and everything. Nearly anyone might feel like a painter walking in the streets of Paris then because the light brought it out in you, and the shadows alongside the buildings, and the bridges which seemed to want to break your heart, and the sculpturally beautiful women in Chanel’s black sheath dresses, smoking and throwing back their heads to laugh.”

This is wonderful stuff, intentionally reminiscent of Hemingway’s great final opus, A Moveable Feast. Reading it, I was irresistibly drawn to a novel set in this fascinating world. The thing is, the actual storybegins when Hadley Richardson meets Ernest Hemingway, not in Paris but in the American Midwest. So without this prologue or its equivalent, we wouldn’t have had this delicious and highly seductive foretaste.

The second reason, even more compelling, comes in the final paragraph of the prologue:

“This isn’t a detective story – not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well-made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.”

I felt a kind of internal shiver when I read this passage, even for the second and third time, and I suspect most other readers did too. In an organic and strikingly visual manner, McClain has put us on notice: get ready, a life-wrecking disaster is on the way. Why would McClain reveal this important plot development, which is a major dramatic feature of the book, so early? Probably because she felt that the first part of her story would have had insufficient dramatic tension without it. We need to experience the charming, innocent phase of the relationship, the falling in love and trying to make it work, so that we become attached to this couple and have a stake in the success of their relationship. That way it’s all the more dramatic and meaningful when the relationship is broken up by the “pretty otter in my kitchen.”

If McClain had begun the book without introducing the specter of Pauline Pfeiffer waiting in the wings, we might not have felt as much impetus to read on. As it is, we as readers have been placed in a deliciously uncomfortable state of having more information than the characters; we know what’s going to befall them, and so we are filled with dread. This uncomfortable state of foreknowledge is known as dramatic irony. It’s an extremely effective tool for creating suspense. Without the prologue, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position. Perhaps we would have read on anyway, buoyed by the intrinsic interest of the story and by McClain’s lovely writing. Or perhaps not.

So yes, the prologue to The Paris Wife feels necessary. And it’s brilliantly done.

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