The Paris Wife, Paula McLain

After distancing myself for a few days from The Paris Wife, I decided that I’d like to write up a proper review for it, as it really was an outstanding book.
In short, it’s about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, told from his wife’s perspective (Hadley Richardson). It begins just as they met in Chicago 1921, through their  mutual friend Kate and her brother, who Ernest and Hadley are both staying with (my feeling is it was some kind of large house with rooms for let, they weren’t sleeping on the couch or anything). Hadley, 28 at the time (to Ernest’s 21), had just lost her mother and desperately needed a vacation, which is what brought her there. Obviously, they fall in love and get married, yada yada ;-)
I think what touched me so much about this book is how real the relationship and the marriage felt. There were mistakes, there were awkward times, there were times of self-doubt and of loneliness. The entire arc of the relationship is covered in this book – from the first words they spoke to each other up to the last phone call they ever share, years after their divorce (if you read through to the epilogue). As a reader, you fall in love with them, you ache with them, you share their frustrations, and when you just begin to sense that things are starting to not go quite as well as they had been, you’re just as surprised to see that the problems had been brewing for a long time, and just as hearbroken about it. They were the couple their friends thought would never break up. This is the story of a real happy couple, and how their marriage crumpled despite, or perhaps because of, their passion.
Paula McLain’s writing struck me right away. It was descriptive and emotional, and conveyed the tone and style of the novel perfectly in every sentence. I’m actually not sure exactly how many of the events and conversations in this novel are true, but I imagine quite a bit of it must be (Hemingway was quite autobiographical in his novels, and he has multiple volumes of published letters – and an otherwise highly public life). What I loved the most was how much The Paris Wife felt like Hemingway’s novels. A big part of the book was dedicated to Pampalona and three different years they attended the running of the bulls and the festivities afterward, which is exactly what happens: fishing trip, toreros, characters and all, in The Sun Also Rises. Her writing didn’t exactly mimic Hemingway’s, but the same tone was there…agh, it’s hard to explain. It is perfect for what it is really:  the supposed recounting of the events through the perspective of his wife, who would sound similar to him, wouldn’t she? It’s really a wonderful novel.
I think Hadley’s voice from the 1920s is similar to many voices of modern women: a little bit insecure, a little bit lonely, completely dependant on her husband (emotionally, as in, she has few friends), and hopelessly in love. I found it easy to connect with, and I think many readers of historical fiction, or admirers of Hemingway’s work, would enjoy it.
As for Paris, well, I can’t speak for that. Hem and Hadley encountered many others we know well today who were featured in the novel: F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein the most prominent of those. I’m not very familiar with any of those, but I’d be curious to see if they’re really anything like how McLain paints them in this novel. I have Z, the Zelda Fitzgerald novel that came out recently, so I may have to get that out in the next few days…
This novel is also funny. The dialogue establishes the personality of whole parties instead of individuals, it seems, and everyone has multiple nicknames and drinks entirely too much (sound like any novels you’ve heard of?). It was a time to be social and to drink and to laugh and to love, and a time of great friends. And there was poverty and grime and beauty and madness that came of the time.
It’s really a wonderful book – you should read it.

Thoughts on The Paris Wife

The following post isn’t a review, exactly. More like an immediate reaction to the novel.

I’ve just finished reading The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. Let me tell you, even though I knew how this book would inevitably end, I find myself crushed by this one.

It begins in Chicago in 1921, Hemingway a strapping 21 year old, and ends in a plethora of places, because marriages don’t end all at once, do they? Perhaps I’m writing this too soon after finishing the book, but this is a literary journal, is it not? I fell in love with this book at the Prologue. The writing enchanted me, and I couldn’t wait to read about how the first girl snagged Ernest Hemingway – it’s quite romantic. It’s delightful to read about falling in love, but who can take reading passage after passage of failing love, of a crumpling marriage – especially when both parties are still very much in love? Especially when they see their peers failing in the same ways…

Young people should read this novel to learn that giving into temptation doesn’t ultimately make anyone happy, does it? Even decades later Ernest Hemingway (at least in the book) realizes that in the grand scheme of his life, his betrayal of Hadley only four years into their marriage, was one of the biggest mistakes he’d ever made.

Hemingway is my favorite classic novelist, A Farewell To Arms & The Sun Also Rises are two of my favorite books ever. I own many of his works, and yet haven’t read them because they’re on ration throughout my lifetime, so there will always be something new. I love his writing, and I like to picture him working, writing, someone who was so dedicated and masterful at his craft…reading this ‘interpretation’ of his first marriage, and perhaps only true love brought me to my knees. This feeling I have after reading the last third of the book is really an emotional blow.

I actually love this book. The writing is very good, and I obviously love the subject. Paula McLain did such a good job, in fact, that I’m quite upset with Mr. Hemingway at the moment. I’m torn between wanting to read one of his books right now, or whether to put them all somewhere I can’t see them for awhile, the bastard.