The Paris Wife

Paula McLain
Ballantine Books, 2012

UnknownOkay. Ernest Hemingway was a philandering, hot-headed bully and braggart who couldn’t keep a friend, didn’t want to keep a friend, and drank too much. But he wrote such good stories that flat-out jack-hammered the rules of fiction and freed all subsequent writers to “write their truth.” At least you and I didn’t have to live with him.

In this fictional account of real life events, the storyteller is Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. In a smart, observant, never condescending or self-pitying voice, she recalls her courtship, marriage, and parting with Hemingway that took place prior to and as his career rose to international acclaim.

Yes, she was the classic stereotype of a first wife who loves and supports the man before fame and money, but she is also a partner who holds her own in the 1920s Paris of the Jazz Age. The Paris Wife gives a glimpse into the pampered, glamorous and often eccentric lives of the artsy rich that included Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Harold Loeb, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ford Maddox Ford.

McClain writes that she wrote her story using reported events and written letters, articles and reference books as markers to turn her action instead of creativity and conjecture. It was her aim to travel beneath the surface of hearsay and salacious details to discover and give voice to a woman of charm and depth. She succeeded so well in drawing a sympathetic character who becomes entangled in a marriage she cannot control or return to simpler days that if the story was stripped of Hemingway, bullfights, and sherry with biscuits for breakfast, it could have taken place in any Suburbia, USA.

Except for one other steady stream that meanders through the book. What happens when loyalty and true love of another no longer supports trueness to oneself? Does love die? Should love die? Where is the intersection of forgiving a person and becoming a martyr? Hadley was twenty-seven and Ernest twenty-one when they met though age may have nothing to do with it. People mature and change throughout life. They also routinely find each other’s foibles and insecurities endearing in courtship and at a later date find them trials of Crusade proportions.

It would be easy to say, “What did you expect when you married a man with Hemingway’s talent and passions?”

Perhaps Hadley didn’t have clear sight of the groom when she married, but who does? When the marriage starts seriously unraveling she says, “I could love him like crazy and work very hard to understand and support him, but I couldn’t be fresh eyes and a fresh smile after five years. I couldn’t be new.” What married man (woman) who sincerely wants to see the wife (husband) succeed and develop hasn’t had that thought and wondered where they fit in the spouse’s heart?

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10 Responses to The Paris Wife

  1. I’ve been anxious to read this book since I read a review somewhere. I’ve read a number of books on Ernst Hemingway and believe Hadley’s downfall began when she lost a suitcase full of her husband’s writing. I can picture how upset he would be about something like that.

  2. That scene was in the book. I’ve heard it discussed that was an unconscious intentional act. Who knows?

  3. Daniela says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. Hemingway was, just like many other hugely talented artists, complex, fraught character … I think it was Beckett who wrote: ‘The artist who stakes his being is from nowhere and has no kin’.

  4. What an interesting review… what with the Zelda books, and Hemingway bullying and roistering violently through books on D-day and books on Paris after the war, as well as before… I’m’, Hemingwayed out ! Poor Hadley !!!
    I gather he apologised to her before he died….

  5. I recently read David McCullough’s book, The Greater Journey, and was fascinated with the stories about Americans in Paris. Unfortunately, it ended in 1900. I was disappointed because I wanted to see what he had to say about the writers who journeyed there in the early 20th Century. I have always found that time period in Paris intriguing. –Curt

  6. Maybe that will be his next book. McCullough is one of the best popular historians to read. I enjoyed that book too, and reviewed it last September. I think Paris at any time is interesting.

  7. Denise Hisey says:

    I enjoyed this book immensely!

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