The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain
This is an important book – deeply researched and near-perfectly written. Were it not about a subject I know well – Ernest Hemingway, his early years in Paris with the likes of Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Scot and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound, I wouldn’t have noticed the rather anemic early press it’s been receiving. I hope to rectify that here.
The story is from the point of view of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, how they met, married, and found themselves within the arty set in post-WWI Paris. Much of the story is so widely known that I’ll just drop in a few of my most memorable moments from my reading of the book.
Hadley’s father committed suicide in the same manner that Hemingway did, much later.
Hadley was nine years older than Hemingway, and paid most of the bills until he established himself as a money-making writer.
Hemingway despised the expatriates’ rich patrons at first, but soon became seduced by the money, fame, and their "good life."
Pauline, Hemingway’s second wife, was a friend of both Ernest and Hadley, and she and Ernest had an affair while Hadley and Ernest were married.
Hemingway “used” his friendships with Fitzgerald, Pound, and Stein, and then turned on them in his writing.
While all this sounds a lot like a tawdry romance novel, it was the life of this bunch – affairs, drunkenness, social cattiness – with a tremendous amount of good writing thrown in.
McLain’s skills here are numerous. Just a few points on the subject:
With the exception of the first few pages, she shows mastery of the Hemingway writing style, of his voice, of the tone and temper of her characters.
While she writes from Hadley’s viewpoint, she’s not unsympathetic to Ernest, and as their marriage founders, she shows both to remain deeply in love but torn by too many outside influences to have made the marriage work.
She depicts Paris as well, and she also does a bang-up job of setting the story in Italy, Austria, and especially, Spain, during the time in which Hemingway writes The Sun Also Rises.
If McLain has a villain here, it’s Pauline, with her growing possessiveness of Ernest, which cast a deep shadow over her relationship with Hadley. Still, Pauline isn’t spared the emotional wear and tear Hadley and Ernest are going through.
As I wrote at the outset here, this is an important book. First, because of the subject matter: while fiction, McLain burrows deeply into the Hemingways’ marriage, what drew them together, and the bond that kept them together far longer than it should have.
Second, it’s more than an imitation of the Hemingway style and sensibility – it goes far beyond that – it depicts the deeper strata of this Paris bunch, how each one’s life was, in the end, irretrievably a part of all the others. This, I think, is the most significant take-away from McLain’s book – that in such a creative crowd, it was hard to keep one’s self intact, much less a marriage.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars