The Paris Wife: A Novel
by Paula McLain
I’ve never read any Hemingway, and this isn’t a book I would have chosen to read, except it was chosen as this month’s read for my book club. Having now read it, I’m left with muddled feelings.
The Paris Wife is a fictional narrative of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage by his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The author, Paula McLain, did exhaustive research on Hemingway and Richardson and their lives in Paris during their five-year marriage. It’s actually hard to remember as you read this novel that it’s a novel because it reads so much like a true memoir. McLain made every attempt to stay true to Hadley’s voice as she interpreted it from old letters and interviews, and to stay true to actual events that occurred, but her goal was to imagine what their marriage was like from the inside, what life and times were like in 1920s Paris when Hemingway and his first wife were there – not to write a biography. It makes it a little tricky, because the reader has to remind herself that Hadley didn’t necessarily actually think these thoughts, and these particular conversations didn’t necessarily actually take place.
Not that it matters in the end, what’s real and what’s imagined by the author. In any case, she has constructed an engrossing story of a young Ernest Hemingway who is a struggling writer trying to hone his craft and achieve recognition and success, and a slightly older, but still young Hadley Richardson who is swept off her feet by this dashing, larger than life, enigmatic man. After a brief courtship, the two marry and quickly move to Paris from Illinois where they struggle to build a life together in free-wheeling Jazz Age Paris. They rub shoulders with a lot of important people in the art and literary world, they eat in a lot of cafes, they drink a lot of alcohol, they have a lot of sex, and do a lot of traveling – kind of amazing, actually, how much life they experience living on a shoestring.
The dialogues in the story kept reminding me of old movies from the 1930s and 40s – that melodramatic way of speaking, as if specifically for a camera or an audience. I don’t say this as a criticism – it actually made it feel more real to me – and the writing itself absolutely transported me to a different time and place. I would curl up with the book and start reading and I could hear them speaking, I could smell the damp, chilly air of Paris, I was there in the cafe and the cramped apartment.
At its core, this is a love story, and I was frustrated with Hadley’s and Ernest’s marriage. Ernest was really a selfish pig, and Hadley put up with way too much crap in my estimation. His needs and wants always came first, often at quite a cost to Hadley. Hadley was very likeable, but also very much a victim – and I kept wondering if the real Hadley actually was such a martyr and a good-hearted woman willing to sacrifice so much for her husband. Maybe it was the times – although she seemed to be surrounded by women willing to stand up for themselves. I think this was part of the mystery of Hadley – a woman who saw herself as more Victorian than modern. When Pauline Pfeiffer came on the scene and she and Ernest fell for each other? Ugh. There are those who say, apparently, that Hadley should have fought harder for her marriage. I call bullshit on that – good riddance to the jerk who wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.
Nonetheless, the demise of their marriage – which felt like it lasted at least twenty years, but which actually only lasted a small fraction of that – left me feeling sad, and wanting to know more about these complicated people.
I’d really like to read A Moveable Feast now.