Rebecca's Reviews > The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
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really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, writers-and-writing, famous-wives

Before I ever read anything by Hemingway himself, I enjoyed this novel told from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Essentially it’s a portrait of the slow collapse of a marriage, such that it doesn’t really matter who the partners are, just the strength of the emotions on display. Hadley is expected to act as if everything is normal, even when her husband’s lover Pauline sets up a sort of ménage à trois with them on holiday:
Everything could be snarled all to hell under the surface as long as you didn’t let it crack through and didn’t speak its name, particularly not at cocktail hour, when everyone was very jolly and working hard to be that way and to show how perfectly good life could be if you were lucky as we were. Just have your drink, then, and another and don’t spoil it.

I loved the energy and sophistication of the Hemingways’ Parisian milieu – everyone from F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Gertrude Stein. The novel centers on their years in Paris but also takes in their beginnings in the Midwest and their various European trips, including the Spanish travels that so influenced Hemingway during the writing of The Sun Also Rises.

The most memorable incident of the novel for me was when Hadley leaves a valise containing all Ernest’s manuscripts unattended on a train on her way to join him in Italy. It’s sickening, almost literally nauseating, to imagine the loss of one’s entire body of work. I was reminded of the horrible accident that befell Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution (it was burned by John Stuart Mill’s maid when Mill borrowed the manuscript to read).

The other novel I was most reminded of was American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld – both books imagine the rich inner life of the shy wife behind a famous man. (The only off-putting elements in this novel were the 1920s slang and the nicknames, even though I’m sure McLain thought they were necessary for creating authenticity. Those Hemingways had some truly awful nicknames! Their poor son became known as “Bumby,” and they called each other “Tatie” and “Tiny” among other things.)

[I noticed that McLain occasionally deviates from first-person narration to include chapters from the perspective of the male lead. Ultimately, this serves the purpose of revealing things that Hadley can’t know. There are a few chapters, set out in italics and told in the third person, which give details of Ernest’s extramarital affairs. I suspect that these chapters may be written as a pastiche of Hemingway’s style; I’d like to think McLain was that clever.]

(This book features in my BookTrib article on famous wives.)
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Reading Progress

July 25, 2011 – Shelved
Started Reading
August 2, 2011 – Finished Reading
October 1, 2013 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
October 3, 2013 – Shelved as: famous-wives
October 3, 2013 – Shelved as: writers-and-writing

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue I read this just before reading A Moveable Feast and found they complemented each other well. She seems to have done her research well.


Rebecca Sue wrote: "I read this just before reading A Moveable Feast and found they complemented each other well. She seems to have done her research well."

I agree! I liked both very much. I think I read this a year before I read the Hemingway. I just finished reading Mrs. Hemingway, which is another interesting look at all the Hemingway marriages - though once again I liked the Hadley story best.


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