Monday, July 18, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Sometimes, the best way to get myself to read a book is to borrow it from the library. If a book sounds good and I buy it, it tends to go on my shelf to wait its turn. Then it can be a very long wait, even for books that I want to read very much at the time of purchase. But a library book has to be returned, so there’s a sense of urgency. Especially if there’s a waiting list and it can’t be renewed.

So, I borrowed The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. This is the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage. (I was curious about this novel because I was quite the Hemingway fan in my college days. Having read A Moveable Feast, I knew a tiny bit about those Paris years.)

It begins with Hadley Richardson at twenty-eight. She has had a difficult upbringing and feels now as if life might have passed her by. But she goes to Chicago to visit a friend and there she meets the twenty-one year old Ernest Hemingway. He is so full of energy and enthusiasm, he brings out the best in her. At least, she feels alive again. They are mutually smitten almost at once. Before long, to everyone’s surprise, they marry.

Hemingway is profoundly ambitious and Hadley is his most ardent supporter. A friend recommends that they go to Paris where the living is cheap and artists abound. He provides letters of introduction, and off they go. There they meet the famous ex-patriots Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and others. Ernest works on his writing and Hadley gives him all the support she can. They are surrounded by hard-drinking friends with unconventional ideas (particularly unconventional ideas about marriage), but everyone seems to agree that what Ernest and Hadley have is the real thing. From the descriptions of their days together, Hadley’s deep understanding of Ernest’s psychology, and her very sincere willingness to sacrifice for his career, it does seem that their marriage stands a fighting chance. That just makes it all the more poignant.

Their marriage works best when they are young, poor, and struggling. As Hemingway gains success and recognition, he loses perspective. He pushes away many of the friends who helped him in the beginning. Hadley has always been aware of her husband’s faults, but she trusts him. So when the final betrayal comes, she is blind-sided.

This is a beautiful and painful book about love, ambition, artistry, and the trickiness of marriage. The author does a wonderful job of inhabiting Hadley’s world, bringing Paris of the 1920's alive, writing with an almost Hemingway-esque voice. All along, despite Hadley’s seeming dependence on Ernest, she is the one with the true strength, the true unwavering sense of self. It’s an insightful character study for both of them.

I’m glad I didn’t let this one languish on my shelf!

I'm making progress on the Historical Fiction Challenge. Come on over to Historical Tapestries to check the links and discover other wonderful novels to add to your TBR lists!


  1. And what a final betrayal it was! I was never a Hemingway fan, but I do think Moveable Feast is a fine bit of writing. I read Paris Wife on vacation last month, and while I thought it was a good read,it mostly served to reinforce to me what a little shit Hemingway was.

  2. I'm interested in this one mostly because I love his wives more than him (like Martha Gellhorn) -- but I've hesitated because I'm not sure I could take the inevitable. Everyone's raving about it, though -- I clearly have to give it a chance!

  3. I'm seeing this one on lots of blogs. It sounds intriguing, and a great read.