The Paris Wife caught my eye several times at the bookstore before I took the plunge. Because it tells the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, I was worried that the novel would be knockoff Hemingway, stripped to the marrow but without any of the vitality that fills his classics. However, Paula McLain has written an excellent and engaging story; one that stands apart from Hemingway yet clearly is saturated in his writing.
This is the story of Hadley Richardson: Ernest Hemingway’s wife at the time he is writing in Paris, producing classics like The Sun Also Rises. As Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Hadley and Ernest are living in Jazz-age Paris, full of liquor and parties and high living. Yet they find themselves in tension as their paths and dreams begin to slowly diverge. The Paris Wife tells the story of their marriage and life.
Paula McLain does an admirable job of telling the story of Hadley and Ernest without resorting to aping Hemingway’s own style. This book has a voice of its own, because it’s Hadley’s eyes we see through, rather than Ernest’s. As such, McLain is free to chart her own course without imitating the actual author. Hadley is a whip-smart main character with a lively voice. She’s entertaining to follow and McLain has written her so vividly that the reader finds himself caught up in her loves, troubles, and sorrows.
I appreciated the depth of the novel: Jazz-age Paris is here in all its ups and downs. We see Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ada and Archibald MacLeish reproduced in all their 1920s glory. McLain paints Paris to be simultaneously breath-taking and putrid: full of life and full of open sewage on the streets. Hadley finds herself an outsider, never quite fitting in with the writers and authors and painters that fill the streets of Paris.
“It gave me a sharp kind of sadness to think that no matter how much I loved him and tried to put him back together again, he might stay broken forever.”
Finally, McLain is bold enough to end the book in tragedy — closely following the actual story of Hadley and Ernest. I appreciated the loose, messy endings that seemed well fitting for Hemingway, an often contradictory and confusing person. Much like The Confessions of X, Hadley remains in the spotlight even after Ernest has faded from view — this is a portrait of her, not Ernest — and McLain brings the book to a conclusion with a fullness and completeness that resonates.
Note: I’d recommend this book for adults and above. There isn’t explicit sexual content, but sexual themes are discussed. This certainly doesn’t condemn the book, but it should be read with caution nonetheless.
Published on 11 May, 2016. Last updated on