Alessandra's Reviews > The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
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Mar 10, 2012

really liked it
Read from October 24 to November 09, 2011

“’Love is a beautiful liar,’” mused a young Ernest Hemingway in Paula McLain’s latest work, The Paris Wife: A Novel. It is a fitting theme for a book that explores the unraveling of a remarkable marriage between Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. Hadley narrates the slow dissolution of their relationship, meanwhile offering rich glimpses into the cacophony of 1920s Paris—a city rife with ex-patriot notables such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound.
The Paris Wife adds to the existing Hemingway scholarship by coloring his early life and only briefly discussing his later years and eventual suicide. McLain also reorients the traditional narrative by including the perspective of an equally notable figure: Hadley Hemingway. This choice of protagonist avoids the more conventional, singularizing accounts of great American men. By placing Hadley at the center of the story, McLain reminds us that underdeveloped historical characters can provide important additions to our understanding of the past.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Hadley eventually escaped her Victorian upbringing and entered into an unconventional world full of martinis, music, and ambitious artists—“‘The accordion and the whores and the wretching,’ he [Ernest] said. ‘That’s our music.’” From seaside bike rides in the south of France to near-death experiences at Pamplona’s running of the bulls, Hadley and Ernest tested their marriage on unfamiliar and ever-shifting terrain. Into this environment they introduced a baby boy, Bumby. His entrance is the linchpin of the narrative, where the freedoms of a vagabond-style “tour de Europe” confronted a sudden need for domesticity and order. Hadley stood in the middle of this discord, grappling with her identity was a woman, wife, and mother—attempting to find meaning in a generation contemporaries now consider “lost.”

McLain places the Hemingway marriage in the middle of a social and sexual revolution; a revolution revealed in the lives of the Hemingways’s friends. Gertrude Stein, an American author, shared her life with another woman, Alice, while Ezra Pound swore off children and courted numerous women at once. Within a social milieu that championed autonomy above all else, Hadley and Ernest labored to delineate the boundaries of their marriage and their identities. Hadley struggled to support Ernest through his fitful efforts to write what ultimately became The Sun Also Rises. After the book’s publication, however, the temptation of unrelenting freedom finally enveloped Ernest:

“He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy.”

As a work of historical fiction, McLain takes the reader into the speculative, albeit convincing, inner life between Hadley and Ernest. The Paris Wife possesses an uncanny ability to draw the reader into the intimate machinations of a couple struggling to define themselves in a kaleidoscopic world—a world bent on challenging normativity and rebelling against Victorian America. Hadley also provides an important gendered perspective. She confronts numerous women challenging gender norms in the early twentieth century; women who traded marriage for work and “freedom.”

The Paris Wife is rife with simple, straightforward rhetoric, unmistakably mirroring the prose of Hemingway himself. Loaded phrases are condensed into short, stout sentences. McLain provides a moving introspective into the life and death of a marriage, while sketching an intimate portrait of the Lost Generation’s dissonant world. Pick it up!
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message 1: by Dario (new)

Dario Check out Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris.

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