Title: The Paris Wife
Author: Paula McLain
Release Date: February 22, 2011
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Source: personal copy
A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures the love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking, fast-living, and free-loving life of Jazz Age Paris. As Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history and pours himself into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises, Hadley strives to hold on to her sense of self as her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Eventually they find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.
A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.
Confession: This book was not on my to-read list. Not in the slightest. The description reminded me of Loving Frank, which I tried to read and did not like, so I had mentally filed this into my “not for me” pile. And then the list of upcoming reads for my book club was handed out, and this was on the top of the list.
I’m happy to admit that I was completely wrong about this book. I found it to be not only readable, but quite interesting. I can’t really call it surprising — after all, it only takes a cursory knowledge of Hemingway’s life to know that he had more than one wife — but certain things about Hemingway did surprise me. For one, I never thought about his early struggle to not only get published, but to find his voice. Living with that sort of artist would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but add in an unfamiliar country and an “accidental” child, and it’s a long row to hoe.
The truth is, though Hemingway later considered Hadley the great love of his life, they weren’t a particularly good match. She was older than him in age, if not in maturity, and never possessed the sort of free spirit that he gravitated towards. I also don’t think she ever had a complete grasp of his work and its importance. There’s one thing she does in the novel that, as a writer, made my heart hurt. She doesn’t do it on purpose, but it is a perfect illustration of her lack of understanding. For a while, she was exactly what he needed — someone to validate his work, no matter what. But when her opinion started to differ from his, you could see him change. There’s more than one occasion when you want to grab him and shake him and ask “who would agree to that?”
Another plus of this novel was its illustration of the jazz age. We meet Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, and other well-known authors of the time. Hemingway’s circle of friends was not timid. They also were not Hadley’s.
At a certain point in the book, I struggled not to go to Wikipedia and peek ahead in Hemingway’s life. I’m glad I didn’t, and let the story unfold for me on its own. But I did go to Wikipedia once I was done, and if you’re curious, Hadley is the grandmother of Margeaux and Mariel Hemingway. I won’t say more than that!
Overall, this felt well researched, and I thought it was well-written. Whether you’re familiar with Hemingway’s life or not, I think this is a worthwhile read.
- “Hemingway fans, historical fiction lovers, Francophiles and devotees of the Lost Generation will find plenty to devour in McLain’s enveloping work.” — write meg!
- “The story is depressing – it’s sad to see their relationship unravel as they become more and more like the “bohemian” (aka licentious and immoral) culture they’ve surrounded themselves with in early 20th Century Paris.” — Beth Stone Studio
- “Overall, the read was pleasing, fast, and has engendered in me a curiosity about one of the most famous American authors and ALL his wives. Check it out!” — Cannonball Read 5