When I picked up my copy of The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, I was intrigued by the endorsement by Nancy Horan, the author of Loving Frank, one of my favorite novels of the last few years. Â It reads “The remarkable novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage is memorizing. Â I loved this book.”
The cover does a good job of revealing something about the period the book was based on, the 1920s. Â It shows an outside bistro in Paris. Â The woman facing forward, the man’s facing the other way, both dressed in clothing from that era. Â I couldn’t wait to dive in, and did on my recent holiday.
As soon as I read the first line, I was hooked:
“Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.”
That’s Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Â When they meet and fall in love, she is 28 and quite diretion-less. She falls hard for him and she has to live with the realization that she is stealing her friend’s former lover right out from under her, but her attraction to Hemingway is too much to bear. Â She commits her life to a struggling writer with big ambitions and they take off to Paris together for him to fulfill his dream. Â Not career driven during a time when women weren’t inspired to have it all, she takes to being his support system, his backbone, often his motivation to write, never once thinking about the friend they both left behind.
In Paris, they encounter Â the likes of Ezra Pound, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and she is thrust into a world of glitz and pretense. Â They seem to love every minute. Â He writes, she plays the domestic, and they drink and party at night. Â She can do no wrong. Â He seems to respect her opinion and wants her to be happy. But she neglects her excellent piano playing and gives into ta struggling existence where they are living pay check until he makes it as a writer.
It isn’t until he’s on assignment in Switzerland and she gets on a train to join him that she loses all of his manuscripts – 3 years worth – that their relationship takes a hit. Â Although it is never mentioned again, it is clear that their relationship will never fully recover. Â Shortly after, she gets pregnant, and Hemingway, who clearly stated his ambivalence, never wanted children and never gives himself to her and the child as a father should. Â He leaves often for business trips (he’s a journalist), leaving her alone in Paris, and then the open flirting starts, and then the affairs.
Hadley stays as strong as she can, but in the book, she confesses that she is dying inside. Â She tells the reader, not Hemingway himself. Â Until she can no longer take it anymore, and when she finally does, we, as readers, are relieved.
The story is an intimate look into Hadley’s life, but also into Hemingway’s life as a writer. Â During the 2nd part of the book, he is churning out The Sun Also Rises and is becoming a star. Â He simply can’t separate his personal life and work, his work always seeming to take priority over the people he loves.
I am so impressed by Paula McLain’s work here. Â It’s an enjoyable, yet enlightening piece of work about an era and group of people from one of the most interesting times for writing and literature. Â While it is fiction, the story is based on her research and feels very realistic, like these were actual conversations and events that transpired. Â The stories about Hemingway’s meetings with Gertrude Stein, the descriptions of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the bullfighting depicted in the novel Hemingway was such a big fan of and the matches they attended in preparation for his book, meetings with screenwriters like Don Stewart who wrote “Philadelphia Story” (he kissed Hadley in the book) and descriptions of post-war Paris are all fascinating. Â And as Hadley tries to find her self amongst the glitz and glitter, as Hemingway’s muse lover, wife, mother, and it all unravels, we see a woman rise up above the ashes. Â Later in life, many years later, she hears of his demise, and relives much of their time in Paris.
Disclosure: I was not compensated to write this review.