When I came across a post mentioning Paula McLain’s book, The Paris Wife, I instantly added it to my wish list. I’m not a fan of Hemingway – I actually hate his writing – but I love the time period and the setting, Paris in the 1920s. I had also recently read Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank and this book seemed to be in a similar vein.
The Paris Wife is the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage as told through his wife Hadley’s perspective. When Hadley Richardson meets Ernest she is a 28 year old spinster living in her sister’s home. She visits a friend in Chicago shortly after her mother, who she cared for, dies from an illness. She meets 20 year old Ernest Hemingway at a party. Ernest has just returned from the war and is suffering from what we now know as PTSD. He is working as a journalist but dreams of something bigger. They have an instant connection. When Hadley returns home they continue their courtship through letters. Shortly later Hadley returns to Chicago and they are married.
They move to Paris when Ernest decides to make of go of writing as a career. McLain describes in detail the process by which Ernest became Hemingway. His writing process and struggles to succeed are recounted through Hadley’s eyes. At the same time Hadley describes her struggle to determine what it means to be a wife and later a mother without losing her identity. She loves Ernest and wants him to succeed but as success begins to come she fears the changes she begins to see.
Many of the darlings of the literary world make an appearance including the Fitzgeralds, Stein, Pound, Dos Pasos, MacLeish and the golden couple Gerald and Sara Murphy. The behavior by some (open marriages, mistresses, children born to women other than their wives) seemed somewhat shocking. It was the Jazz Age and boozing around was expected but I was surprised by some of the details involving affairs. It was also fascinating to see Hadley struggle to fit in with their new circle of friends. Because Hadley always appeared to be an outsider it made her the perfect person to recount all the details as an outside observer.
As their marriage begins to fall apart I couldn’t help but feel for Hadley and her son, Bumby. She had given so much to Ernest when he struggled and she wasn’t able to enjoy the success that came to him. But ultimately, it appears that success didn’t bring Hemingway happiness as he went on to marry three more times and ultimately commit suicide. Hadley however found solace with her second husband.
I LOVED this book. I didn’t want it to end. I savored reading each page. I felt transported to the 1920s and I could picture Paris and see what drew Hadley to Ernest. McLain is an incredible writer and clearly did a lot of research to compile this book. There are many little details like music, books, drinks, etc that are woven in.
I would highly recommend reading this book.
Disclaimer: I received my copy from Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Though I would have gladly paid full price for this book as it’s one that I imagine I will reread many times in the future.