Book Review: The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

My first experience with Ernest Hemingway was in junior year AP English when my teacher assigned us A Farewell to Arms. I’ll confess now that I read it on Sparknotes, and only remember the ending being very “full-circly.” Years later, I picked up The Sun Also Rises, intrigued by the blurb on the back. It took me nearly seven months to read (Hemingway’s style is so hard to digest), but I loved it nonetheless. Right after, I picked up Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, thinking it would be a good accompaniment. My intuition was not wrong. An excerpt states:

“We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was. We invented it after all. We made it with our longing and cigarettes and Rhum St. James; we made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn’t ours. Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again.”

There’s something about The Paris Wife that reads like a fanfiction, and perhaps it’s because that’s what it sort of is — a partially fictionalized account of  Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson. Grounded in real events, McLain gives the story a dazzling Jazz Age twist, beautifully crafting every moment in between Hadley and Ernest’s first encounter in 1920 and their very last in 1961. Any reader of Wikipedia can easily find out what happened to the relationship on paper, (a fairytale romance ripped apart by Ernest’s pursuit of other women), but it’s an entirely different task to give the in-between a vibrant life of its own.

And that’s exactly what McClain does, but not just with the in-between. Every element in the novel is touched with richness, and when weaved together, produces a whole that thrives with color and confidence. Starting with the characters, Hadley comes alive from the very beginning, as McLain gets into the inner workings of her mind. We feel her hopelessness with love, the pain of her past experiences, and the promise of adventure Ernest comes with. We understand her desire for fulfillment in Paris and the intensity with which she tries to relate to Ernest as he immerses himself in writing. Our hearts break when she loses the valise of his work, or when Ernest finally decides to leave her for Pauline Pfeiffer. But we also grow as Hadley does, and discover that sometimes even the strongest love cannot last.

That being said, Hadley is not the only captivating character within the novel. It’s interesting to see so many historical figures with a quasi-fictional persona, from the impassioned Ezra Pound to the assertive Gertrude Stein. Ernest himself is presented as multidimensional, as we see how his humble beginnings lead into arrogance, erraticism and dejection. The inspirations for his famous works are evident, some outright and others subtler. Of course, there is the trip to Spain that becomes The Sun Also Rises, but hints of “The Cat in the Rain” and “Hills Like White Elephants” make their way into the text as well.

The Paris Wife also portrays well what being a woman in that time period was like, and more so how it was changing. Hadley was traditional, focused on being a wife and a mother; Pauline was untethered, a woman with a career and no inhibitions.

On structure, the novel was written decently well; it exhibited simplicity tinged with eloquence. The only sections I particularly disliked were those from Ernest’s point of view because they felt like a cop-out (but then I considered the alternate — heavy explanatory dialogue — and I’m not sure what I would prefer). I sometimes wondered what the book would be liked if McLain attempted to write like Hemingway, but then it would become more a book about him and less about Hadley.

And that, after all, would ruin the foundation upon which the story was built. In The Paris Wife, Hadley Richardson is at the forefront, which makes the novel all the more compelling. A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s version of their marriage; The Paris Wife is Hadley’s.

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