Jay's Reviews > The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Sep 30, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: hemingway, biography-memoir
Recommended to Jay by: NPR Review

Often, timing is everything. At least it was for me when it came to Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. I probably would have passed it by if I had not, several months after its debut, impulsively picket up a copy of The Old Man and the Sea on Barnes and Noble’s discount table.

When I first heard the review of The Paris Wife on NPR on March 1 2011, Hemingway and his works were distant encounters during my teen years in the 1950s. Although novels as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls were, for me, reading highlights of those years, I had not read anything of Hemingway’s since. And not only had I not read any of Hemingway since my high school years, but I was also aware that many current readers and critics were not convinced of Hemingway’s talents and skills: among many he was quite out of favor. Given that current criticism, I hadn’t added Hemingway to my reading list. So, although the NPR review was positive in regard to McLain’s novel and her recreation of the lives of Hadley and Hemingway during the 1920s, the idea of spending time with Hemingway’s first wife was, for me, not overly attractive. I had other interests. There were other books on my to-read list.

So in August, on merely a whim, I read The Old Man and the Sea. That novel led me to re-read The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls and to read for the first time Farewell to Arms and A Moveable Feast. All that reading reminded me, contrary to some of Hemingway’s current negative critics, of his remarkable gifts as a writer. Against that background, Hemingway’s Paris years from the perspective of Hadley Richardson became suddenly of greater interest. In September, when I saw a copy of the book in Barnes and Noble’s recent arrival shelf, I was reminded of NPR’s review and now added it to my list of books to read.

My August readings had included The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. Both focus on the 1920s when Hadley and Hemingway were in Paris as a newly married couple and moving among the members of the “Lost Generation”—people like Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, Ezra Pound, Gerald and Sara Murphy, John Dos Pasos, Picasso. With Hemingway’s voice newly echoing in my mind, reading The Paris Wife was particularly enjoyable.

Of course, The Paris Wife is a novel and not an authentic biography. Although McLain follows Hadley’s real life in its real dimensions and course and, although the people who move through her pages are real and not fictional, still there is much imagined in regard to conversations, emotions, interrelationships and feelings. McLain herself described the work as a novel “in conversation” with Hemingway in “A Moveable Feast”:

I think the way it occurred to me at the time, and perhaps I was fooling myself, was that I was in conversation with that book [“A Moveable Feast”] and that I was inserting my version of Hadley into that time and talking about their places and their experiences from her point of view. [I was] giving her an opportunity to step into the light for a moment, out of the fringes of literary history.

In The Moveable Feast Hadley is quite tangential, lurking in the shadows without voice. McLain moves her out of the shadows and gives her voice. Hadley, now in center stage, draws us into Hemingway’s Paris years, bringing those years into new life and a new perspective. McLain’s novel is not great literature but it is a skillful [Brenda Wineapple in her New York Times review calls it “stylish”] work that gives us a multi-faceted view of a complex man who did write seminal fiction and of the long-suffering and decent woman who became a permanent part of his heart.

I am not certain you could read The Paris Wife without some previous encounter with Hemingway and without some knowledge of the ambiance of Paris among the émigré community in the wake of World War One. For me the book’s value was its “stylish” (to use Wineapple’s characterization again) re-entry into the world out of which came The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. It is also a book whose wider, more appreciative audience would probably be female. The novel's pace is slow and reflective. The truth be told, the life of Hadley Richardson would not be of interest were it not for her connection to Ernest Hemingway for better or for worse.

25 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Paris Wife.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

September 30, 2011 – Shelved
October 4, 2011 – Started Reading
October 10, 2011 – Finished Reading
May 7, 2016 – Shelved as: hemingway
December 9, 2017 – Shelved as: biography-memoir

Comments (showing 1-8)

dateUp arrow    newest »

Mary Novaria TThis is the St Thomas book club selection for November. It's in my stack. Look forward to your review.

Mary Novaria Great review! Next in my queue. I like to read this way, as well, for example: Reading Lolita in Tehran, read Nabokov's Lolita. The Hours, read Mrs. Dalloway, etc. I'm looking forward to The Paris Wife!

message 6: by Michelle (new) - added it

Michelle Ardillo Nice review. I am reading the book now, glad for your perspective.

Karey I just finished this book and enjoyed it immensely despite not being familiar with Hemingway..Although I read Old Man and the Sea in high school I have no memory of it except a vague notion that I didn't "get" why he was a big deal. I don't think one has to be familiar with Hemingway to appreciate the book. I appreciate Richardson's struggles to be a suitable wife in the 1920's and viewed it as a true love strychnine. It reminded me of Loving Frank which is also a favorite of mine.
Moreover it has made me our The Sun Also Rises and A Movable Feast on my "to read" list. Thanks

Karey true love story...interesting autocorrect!

Sarah Mccarthy I LOVED the Old Man and the SEa, a book that at first sounds boring. What could possibly be interesting about an old man floating around on the sea?

Robin Costic Ln

message 1: by Q (new) - rated it 3 stars

Q Jay, thx for your review. I felt very much the same way you did but wasn't able to find the words to articulate it. . Had reread and read for the first time different Hemingway books and saw old movies of them too and appreciated his writing much more than I had as a young adult reading him for the first time. And read them before Paris Wife. What I like about The Paris Wife was Paula McClain giving a voice to Hadley and the many contrasts of their perspectives - male and female. A moveable feast is a better written book and captured my interest more. And I'm glad I read both. Thx for your review.

back to top