I wanted to love Paula McLain’s second novel The Paris Wife, and so I was disappointed when I did not like it. McLain writes about the first wife of the great American novelist Ernest Hemingway. You’ve probably never heard of her; I had not. Her name was Hadley Richardson.
McLain relied on Hemingway’s own work, A Moveable Feast, to tell her story. Her aim, though, was “to push deeper into the emotional lives of the characters and bring new insight to historical events, while staying faithful to the facts.” The people in the book are real, the places they go are the actual places these characters went, the events described truly happened. However, I wonder if the phrases used were actually what was said. Over time, our memories change and sometimes those memories can be wrong.
Hadley Richardson met Ernest Hemingway in 1920 in Chicago. After a short courtship, they marry and go to Paris to live. This was just after Hemingway’s participation in World War I; the war had changed him. Hadley was several years his senior, but he had seen far more than she. Hemingway “had looked into the faces of the dead and tried not to remember anything in particular.” He often said that he died in the Great War, “just for a moment; that his soul had left his body like a silk handkerchief, slipping out and levitating over his chest. It had returned without being called back.”
People like Hemingway took greater risks then than those who had not seen death. He lived fast, he lived hard. He experienced things with more emotion than others did. McLain does a wonderful job of showing readers that. She also illustrates how hard he worked to succeed as an author, even after multiple rejections. He seemed to know, despite the naysayers, that he was destined for literary greatness.
Too bad he didn’t feel the same about being a husband and father. McLain writes that Hemingway was concerned with meeting the “right” people in Paris and he did. He and Hadley hobnobbed with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, among others. Too often, this novel becomes a list of names and places and events, such as “In ___, we went to ______, where we stayed with ______. _______ told us _________.” There is simply too much of it.
Hemingway, in my eyes, comes across as egotistical and apathetic toward Hadley. He is not a good husband. I found myself hating him. Yet, Hadley did not win favor in my eyes, either. As McLain portrays her, she is a fool who silently takes what her husband dishes out. She does whatever he says to do. Hemingway makes all the decisions; she’s just along for the ride. Even when Hemingway seems to invite a threesome into her bed (with the woman who will become his second wife), Hadley does not protest. I felt nothing for her.
What McLain does do brilliantly, though, is bring 1920s Paris to life. I was awed. Paris becomes the book’s third major character, and the novel is better for it.
I applaud McLain for showing glimpses of a very depressed and unhappy man, a man who went on to commit suicide later in his life. The book is titled The Paris Wife, but it is Hemingway who steals the show…even when he’s obnoxious, rude, indifferent, and adulterous. This is his book.