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The Paris Wife: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 22, 2011
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The idea to write in Hadley’s voice came to me as I was reading Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his early years in Paris. In the final pages, he writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” That line, and his portrayal of their marriage -- so tender and poignant and steeped in regret -- inspired me to search out biographies of Hadley, and then to research their brief and intense courtship and letters -- they wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of delicious pages to another!
I couldn’t help but fall in love with Hadley, and through her eyes, with the young Ernest Hemingway. He was just twenty when they met, handsome and magnetic, passionate and sensitive and full of dreams. I was surprised at how much I liked and admired him -- and before I knew it, I was entirely swept away by their gripping love story.
I hope you will be as captivated by this remarkable couple as I am -- and by the fascinating world of Paris in the 20’s, the fast-living, ardent and tremendously driven Lost Generation.
A Look Inside The Paris Wife
Ernest and Hadley Hemingway, Chamby, Switzerland, winter 1922
Ernest and Hadley Hemingway on their wedding day, 1921
Ernest, Hadley, and Bumby, Schruns, Austria, 1925
The Hemingways and friends at a cafe in Pamplona, Spain
Paula McLain has taken on the task of writing a story most of us probably think we already know--that of a doomed starter wife. To make life more difficult, McLain proposes to tell us about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, who is a twenty-eight-year-old Midwestern spinster when she marries the twenty-one-year-old unpublished, (but already cocksure) writer and runs off to Paris with him. The talent and joy of this novel is that McLain does a startling job of making us understand this as a great love story and seducing us into caring deeply, about both Ernest and Hadley, as their marriage eventually comes apart.
This novel moves beyond the dry bones of biography or skewed personal vision of memoir, and takes a leap into the emotional lives of these characters. It is a leap of faith for those readers who think they know Hemingway, but McLain’s voice sticks close enough to historical material, and to the words and tone of Hemingway’s own writing, to be convincing. She had me at the description of young Hadley’s father committing suicide.
“The carpets had been cleaned but not changed out for new, the revolver had been emptied and polished and placed back in his desk.”
Hadley is also crippled by a childhood fall and trapped into spinsterhood by her mother’s declining health and eventual death. By the time she meets Hemingway, we are rooting for her to make a break for foreign shores--even as we understand the danger of marrying a tempestuous man. Hemingway is all nervous purpose, ambition and charisma as he meets Hadley and is drawn to her quiet strength and ordinary American sweetness. In his youth and uncertainty, she is his rock and yet we already suspect that as he grows in artistic power, she will become an unwanted anchor. Through Hadley’s eyes and plain-speaking voice, we see all of twenties Paris and the larger-than-life artists who gather in the cafes. We drink tea with Gertrude Stein and champagne with Fitzgerald and Zelda. We run with the bulls in Pamplona and spend winters in alpine chalets. And we see, through her love for him, the young writer becoming the Hemingway of legend. Perhaps it is the nature of all great artists to be completely selfish and obnoxious, but Hadley’s voice is always one of compassion. Even as Hemingway leaves her completely out of The Sun also Rises, even as Hemingway publicly flirts with other women, she continues to explain and defend him. It is a testament to Paula McLain that the reader is slow to dislike Hemingway, even as he slowly and inexorably betrays Hadley’s trust.
I loved this novel for its depiction of two passionate, yet humanly-flawed people struggling against impossible odds--poverty, artistic fervor, destructive friendships--to cling on to each other. I raise a toast to Paula McLain’s sure talent.
Top Customer Reviews
Paula McLain researched their biographies, letters, and Hemingway's novels, culling the material to imagine a story of their charmed and battered marriage in Paris, from 1921-1926. The tortured life and tragically foreshadowed suicide of Ernest Hemingway is public knowledge, as was his legendary womanizing. McLain's novel dodges the palaver, blending the facts that are known together with credible inference, creating a plausible, informed depiction of Hemingway and Hadley's marriage--the quotidian, the famed, the halcyon, the harsh.
The author writes from Hadley's point of view, inviting the reader inside their most tender and demolishing moments. A few choice sections belong to Hemingway's perspective, urgent and telling. The narrative deftly folds in their histories--the years before they met--artfully revealing early and private woes, which ripple and sometimes hiss beneath the ardor. We get the back stories without muddled exposition; by the time it arrives at the failure of their union, readers have acquired a fluency of Hadley's nature and Hemingway's core.
Hadley sustained several painful childhood experiences that eerily parallel Hemingway's, and was a recluse and "spinster" at twenty-eight, when she met and was courted by the twenty-one-year-old Hemingway. He was a struggling, ambitious writer, home after the shock and agonies of the Great War, where he endured trauma and its aftereffects, described today as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He couldn't sleep without a light. His mother was an insufferable controller, and he didn't want to marry a woman like that.
The pliable and less progressive Hadley was a sound match for the needy, talented, and egocentric Ernest. He required a woman who would unshakably support his career. Hadley was a generous lover and devoted supporter who sacrificed her personal ambitions for Ernest. She was also playful and warm and smart, but not savvy and edgy like the emerging modern women of the 1920's.
In prose that reflects the style of the era, McLain illustrates a glittering world of élan expatriates and literati. Hadley and Ernest (and their baby, Bumby) lived in the (then) modest Latin Quarter, and soon became a vibrant part of the Left Bank artists, such as Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, Jean Rhys, and many others. Open marriage, and mistresses living in the same house with wives, were not unheard of in this set.
Blithe talk, bottomless glasses of whiskey, and bottle after bottle of wine was the norm in their active social lives. In the mornings, the hair of the dog was the cure for the night on the town. Jaunts to Pamplona to see the bullfights were illustrated by McClain in all their gory splendor.
During this time, Hemingway wrote copiously and tirelessly, jealous of some of his peers who were already established. The germination and completion of The Sun Also Rises is covered, as well as his ruthless parody of Sherwood Anderson's work, The TORRENTS OF SPRING. Hadley loved him utterly, propped him up buoyantly, and assured him of his inevitable success. Eventually, Ernest acquired more expansive needs, and Hadley needed less, but got more than she bargained for. McClain limns their marriage as more than just a cautionary tale.
"To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean's worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds."
This isn't standard "chick-lit" fare, nor is it cloying. I recommend this to anyone interested in the psyche of Hemingway, his first marriage, and his genesis as one of the greatest American authors of our time--from a wife's perspective.
Paula McLain has clearly read lots of Hemingway. The writing style is Hemingwayesque. It feels right for this story and for Hadley's voice because she was so much more reserved than the others in their circle. In the end, McLain quite neatly analyzes Ernest and the marriage, and the book is so readable. Although it is fiction, I don't doubt that it really could have happened this way. The book is obviously thoroughly researched. Historic fiction is so tricky, and I think it fails more often than it succeeds. This is by far the best historic novel I have ever read. I don't want to spoil the delights in these pages, but I will share a highlight for me. When Hemingway and Fitzgerald were editing The Sum Also Rises at the kitchen table, Hadley compared them to surgeons. At that point I think she realized that Ernest's greatness as a writer would surmount his failings as a husband and a human being. I thought it was a fabulous moment.
I really think this book is a triumph. The subject matter definitely piqued my interest, the writing was flawless, and I wish there could be a sequel.
I adored the book, "Loving Frank" by Nancy Horner all about Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress; it as well as "The Paris Wife," demonstrate the incredible sacrifices a companion must make to cajole an artist's tender ego. Not surprisingly I see Nancy Horan endorsed this book and rightfully she should. The writing is so beautifully strong as it exposes lifestyles of creative geniuses. Paula MClain does an amazing job of keeping the reader glued to the perils of this complex couple. Homage is paid to many parts of Europe and sent me to the computer to look at the sites the Hemingway's enjoyed. When a book fires your curiosity you know you have found a treasure.
Though a fictionalized account, the author did extensive research and to my mind didn't make any major mistakes in her accuracy. The tale is riveting because of her ability to breath life into all the major players.
Great novel that I highly endorse.