Book review: ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain

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!

ISBN: 0345521307 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

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.

Of Hemingway, coffee and fibs

booking_through_thursSo my brain is pretty much mush this week, rendering me unable to focus on much of anything! After crocheting a few scarves for the shop and settling down to watch “Glee” last night, I felt so tired I could barely make it through a few pages of Life As We Knew It before falling asleep.

That being said, I’ve done very little reading this week! So I’m jumping back into one of my old favorite memes, Booking Through Thursday — and here’s our question:

According to this article, two-thirds of Brits have lied about reading books they haven’t. Have you? Why? What book?

When I was a senior in high school, regional magazine Southern Maryland, This Is Living interviewed me for their “Who’s Creative?” column. My college admissions essay revolved entirely around the importance of numbers in my life — ironic, really, considering I’m probably the world’s worst math student! As an exercise in school, we’d had to turn our admissions essays in to our English teacher, who then passed them on to our peers for editing. Mine was a hit. After it made the circuit at the school, it wound up in the hands of the magazine’s editor — and then it was time for my interview!

Knowing me as you all do, you know I thought I’d hit the big time. Here I was, saucy at 17 — and discussing my writing. The inspiration for my work. Considering I penned my first full-length novel at the age of 10, in my mind, I’d already been writing for seven years. I was ready to hit the big time! I needed my big break! Author Shannon Hale had a very similar experience and had me majorly laughing at the National Book Festival — I could totally relate!

So my interview is all set up in the cafe of our local Borders, where I shake hands with my interviewer and settle nervously into my seat. We go through the preliminary questions: how was my high school experience? What was I studying in college? What sort of hobbies did I have?

And then we got to the “harder” stuff: Who’s your favorite author?

Being, you know, seventeen — and desperately wanting to be taken seriously — all of the “honest” answers that popped in my head (like Meg Cabot, though I adore her) immediately disappeared, the names just crumbling on my tongue. Those were young adult authors. They were for kids! And I was a writer — a creative writer! I needed . . . someone . . . serious! Pedantic, even.

So which name did I unceremoniously drop?

Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway's home in Key West, Fla.

Hemingway's home in Key West, Fla.

Oh, friends — yes. I did. Hemingway. I’d taken a trip with my family to Key West, Fla., just years before, and the experience of walking through the hot bungalow where Ernest himself camped out, drunk and rambling, had really made an impression on me. Hemingway did the majority of his writing there and, I knew, was widely admired. At least by my English teachers. So his seemed as good a name as any.

Nevermind that I’d never read a single book by him . . . or even a single passage. Not one that I could easily recall, anyway. His was a big, well-known name — and definitely not a sissy author. He’d practically been inducted in the literary hall of fame, am I right? Canonized or demonized, depending on your perspective? No one would accuse me of not being well-read, gosh darnit!

Of course, my interviewer could have easily called me on my bluff, flatlining me with a follow-up like, “Oh, yeah, little lady? And which book is the best? Do you even know any of their names — what any of them are about?”

To which I would have blushed crimson, crawled under the sticky cafe table and folded myself into the fetal position, not daring to peek back up at the glowering face of the reporter or my disappointed parents. Thankfully, that didn’t happen — I’m pretty sure sitting in a puddle of spilled coffee on that floor would have been the cherry on my sundae of utter humiliation.

I chose Hemingway because I knew he was famous for his stream-of-consciousness writing style, a tradition I (naively) believed I carried on. I chose him because I’d seen his house, for cryin’ out loud — because I’d seen the actual space where he wrote. Because I’d walked through it. Because I’d stood on the same steps, looking out over the same land.

Ernest and me, you know, we were close.

Would I ever fib to impress someone with my literary knowledge again? No. I wouldn’t. But nor would I have to pull a legend out of a hat any longer! Because sitting at that table with sweating palms seven years ago, I learned a valuable lesson: writers have to read. Not a little, or occasionally, or just the well-knowns — but everything. As much of it as possible. If we want to get better — if we want to have something real  to say, and know how to say  it — we have to get out and experience life. And then read lots of novels about it. So, as write meg! can attest, I’ve tried hard to do just that!

And I’ll get around to For Whom The Bell Tolls one of these days . . .