Ernest Hemingway is a fascinating — and enduring — American icon. Since his death in 1961, “Papa” seems to be getting more, not less, popular; and recent novelizations of his life have proven wildly popular. Like this one.
Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, a novel based on Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson, is an ambitious and moving look at a couple’s early romance and disintegration set against the gritty backdrop of post-World War I Paris. Though the book ultimately left me a bit miffed at the couple, I realize these individuals weren’t puppets McLain could maneuver; Hemingway’s own A Moveable Feast provided extensive source material, and the author incorporated details from personal correspondence and more. I hate asking myself, “Is this real? Or maybe this,” which is why I often stick to pure fiction.
Knowing how faithful she was to Ernest and Hadley’s story actually allowed me to just relax into the narrative. McLain’s Hadley is so strong and vivid that I had to remind myself this wasn’t actually a memoir. As the older Hadley meets and is courted by a young, handsome writer with dreams the size of Chicago, it’s obvious why she would have fallen so completely for the man who would be Hemingway. Back in the early ’20s, Ernest was just a guy with ambition and a funny last name. Hadley feels loved by him, accepted by him — and barely hesitates in marrying and following him to Paris, where Ernest becomes a foreign correspondent and gets to work on his literary career.
All is not macarons and cream, of course. Post-war France isn’t a colorful, sparkly place; the Hemingways’ cramped apartment with its loud neighbors and dank location would have evoked misery in someone less in love than Hadley. She dutifully accompanies Ernest to his social gatherings, where she’s introduced to the “Lost Generation” crew of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Sara and Gerald Murphy and more. Being neither a writer or artist, Hadley seems to have little in common with this glittery gang — especially as McLain often emphasizes how unfashionable and “plain” she can be. But there’s something real about Hadley, something that makes her seem far more tangible than the other women in the book. She’s solid. Dependable. Honest.
Though Ernest doesn’t always see it that way.
I became completely entranced by Hadley’s Paris and her relationship with Ernest, her first love. The novel is told in retrospect, meaning we get all of Hadley’s asides and insertions decades removed from this early marriage. I couldn’t help feeling intensely sorry for Hadley, knowing how everything was going to happen . . . a terrible collision you predict but are powerless to stop.
Before picking up The Paris Wife, I knew little about Hemingway himself — and have even been known to fake reading his work. I’m not sure if the biographical information would be a little dull to a Hemingway aficionado, but it seemed artfully woven into the narrative and wasn’t distracting at all. I liked learning more about his family, especially.
McLain never presents Ernest as a saint, nor does she shape him into a villain . . . but he was quite a jerk all the same. By the end of the book, I was ready to wash my hands of this selfish man and read something a little more uplifting. I felt for Hadley and Bumby, wanting what was best for them, but I couldn’t believe she’d had the strength to stick it out as long as she did. It made me angry.
But these were real people . . . real people McLain brought beautifully to life. I certainly don’t fault the author for their personal faults and decisions; I guess I just got really sick of them. When Hadley was ready to leave Paris, so was I.
Hemingway fans, historical fiction lovers, Francophiles and devotees of the Lost Generation will find plenty to devour in McLain’s enveloping work. Though I was occasionally frustrated by the principle players, The Paris Wife is a memorable work that has me interested in learning more about the legendary Hemingway. And maybe Wife No. 2.
3.75 out of 5!
A word on the audio: Narrator Carrington MacDuffie had just the right breathy cadence for Hadley, a St. Louis girl, and I loved the quality of her voice. Something about it was both refined and innocent. Sometimes her “voice” for Ernest verged on becoming a caricature, but no matter. It wasn’t too distracting, and I really liked the audio’s flow.