switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
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Feb 16, 11

Read in February, 2011

At the end of Ernest Hemingway's memoir, A Moveable Feast , he writes of his first wife, Hadley Richardson, "I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her." After their divorce, Hemingway goes on to have three more wives, each one standing in the shadows, waiting for him to dissolve his present vows. This is the story of the woman that loved him before he was famous.

Paula McLain researched their biographies, letters, and Hemingway's novels, culling the material to imagine a credible story of their charmed and battered marriage in Paris, from 1921-1926. The tortured life and tragically foreshadowed suicide of Ernest Hemingway is public knowledge, as was his legendary womanizing. McLain's novel dodges the palaver, blending the facts that are known together with credible inference, creating a plausible, informed depiction of Hemingway and Hadley's marriage--the quotidian, the famed, the halcyon, the harsh.

The author writes from Hadley's point of view, inviting the reader inside their most tender and demolishing moments. A few choice sections belong to Hemingway's perspective, urgent and telling. The narrative deftly folds in their histories--the years before they met--artfully revealing early and private woes, which ripple and sometimes hiss beneath the ardor. We get the back stories without muddled exposition; by the time it arrives at the failure of their union, readers have acquired a fluency of Hadley's nature and Hemingway's core.

Hadley sustained several painful childhood experiences--that eerily parallel Hemingway's--and was a recluse and "spinster" at twenty-eight, when she met and was courted by the twenty-one-year-old Hemingway. He was a struggling, ambitious writer, home after the shock and agonies of the Great War, where he endured trauma and its aftereffects, described today as PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). He couldn't sleep without a light. His mother was an insufferable controller, and he didn't want to marry a woman like that.

The pliable and decidedly not progressive Hadley was a sound match for the needy, talented, and egocentric Ernest. He required a woman who would unshakably support his career. Hadley was a generous lover and devoted supporter who sacrificed her personal ambitions for Ernest. She was also playful and warm and smart, but not savvy and edgy like the emerging modern women of the 1920's.

In prose that reflects the style of the era, McLain illustrates a glittering world of élan expatriates and literati. Hadley and Ernest (and their baby, Bumby) lived in the (then) modest Latin Quarter, and soon became a vibrant part of the Left Bank artists, such as Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, Jean Rhys, and many others. Open marriage, and mistresses living in the same house with wives, were not unheard of in this set.

Blithe talk, bottomless glasses of whiskey, and bottle after bottle of wine was the norm in their active social lives. In the mornings, the hair of the dog was the cure for the night on the town. Jaunts to Pamplona to see the bullfights were illustrated by McClain in all their gory splendor.

During this time, Hemingway wrote copiously and tirelessly, jealous of some of his peers who were already established. The germination and completion of The Sun Also Rises is covered, as well as his ruthless parody of Sherwood Anderson's work, The TORRENTS OF SPRING. Hadley loved him utterly, propped him up buoyantly, and assured him of his inevitable success. Eventually, Ernest acquired more expansive needs, and Hadley needed less, but got more than she bargained for. McClain limns their marriage as more than just a cautionary tale.

"To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean's worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds."

This isn't standard "chick-lit" fare, nor is it cloying. I recommend this to anyone interested in the psyche of Hemingway, his first marriage, and his genesis as one of the greatest American authors of our time--from a wife's perspective.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by AlanM (new) - added it

AlanM Your review gave me a strong sense of the book, which I appreciate. Great job-thanks!


message 2: by switterbug (Betsey) (last edited Feb 20, 2011 03:19AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

switterbug (Betsey) Thanks for your comment, Alan. It was a great ride, and poignant. Switterbug


Cheryl I agree Alan. Great review Betsey. You're a talented writer.


switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, Cheryl! That is so kind of you to say.


message 5: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Reading some of reviews, I was thinking the same thing; you're quite the writer. A very good writer. Great reviews.


switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, Eddie!!! That makes my day.


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