At its most basic level, The Paris Wife is a delicate balance of lovely details and sharp realities, truth and lies, love and loss. Paula McLain meshes heady romance with bitter betrayal, bright beginnings with heart-twisting endings. The novel combines all that is bitter and sweet – like pairing shortbread cookies with a shot of whiskey.
The author introduces readers to Chicago in the 1920’s, where a young, ambitious Ernest Hemingway saunters into 28-year old Hadley Richardson’s plain vanilla life. His undeniable charm and passion infect Hadley, who has all but given up on true love. She finds herself smitten with Hemingway, and deeply intrigued by his wounded soul.
After a brief courtship and wedding, newlyweds Ernest and Hadley settle in Paris, where they meet and mingle with fellow expatriates Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, as well as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The couple scrapes together a modest existence from Ernest’s various reporting jobs and Hadley’s meager inheritance. The two then spend almost every penny keeping up with wealthy friends, drinking until dawn, and traveling across Europe.
Within a short time, it becomes obvious that Hemingway values his journalism assignments, personal writing, and alcohol above all else. Though he has a few tender moments, Ernest remains painfully insecure and becomes increasingly insensitive to Hadley’s needs. He belittles colleagues, insults friends, and whines about paltry assignments. His wife, ever patient, strokes his ego, supports his work, and rationalizes away his manic highs and almost-bottomless lows.
For Hadley, the glamour of their hard-drinking and fast-living Paris life soon begins to tarnish and fade. The drama of open marriage, blatant affairs, and wild excess often leave Hadley at a loss, while Ernest embraces and accepts all of the indulgences that surround them, no matter how damaging or poisonous they are to friends or their own relationship.
When Hadley broaches the subject of children, Ernest voices his disapproval with firm resolve. He insists a child would only stand in the way of his writing, a terrible distraction sure to sink his career. Against his will, Hadley eventually becomes pregnant, and Ernest embraces the arrival of their child with little more than detached ambivalence.
While The Paris Wife is a work of fiction, much of it is based on Paula McLain’s extensive research into Ernest and Hadley’s relationship, which was Hemingway’s first marriage. While it is fascinating to read about life for the wealthy and powerful in 1920’s Paris, the picture drawn by McLain is less than ideal. Hemingway and colleagues focus the majority of their time on self- gratification, whether it is writing, drinking, or women. Perhaps the most neglected of all is the Hemingway’s son, Jack. Nicknamed “Bumby,” the little boy spends the first few years of his life with a nanny, while Hadley follows her husband on trips or stays home and worries about Ernest leaving her for other women.
Overall, Paula McLain’s novel is well written and descriptive. Knowing the certain demise of the Hemingway’s marriage, The Paris Wife felt a bit too long, somewhat repetitive (how much alcohol can one couple drink?), and drawn-out at times.
If you adore Ernest Hemingway’s writing, fair warning: the novel deftly describes McLain’s understanding of what the author had in his life, what he lost, and precisely how he destroyed it.
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books (February 22, 2011)