The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

July 2, 2011

Plot summary (from the publisher): A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.

Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.

A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I’ve never read a biography of Hemingway before, and have only glimpsed the author’s private life through the lenses of acquaintances Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (whom I have read about extensively). It was nice to get a “firsthand” look at Hemingway (I know McLain took liberties, but still…) for a change.
  • Hemingway’s friendship with Gertrude Stein was one of the most interesting parts of the book. I knew that they were pals for a time, of course, but I had no idea that she mentored him so much and influenced his work to such a high degree. The famous Hemingway style of bare-bones descriptions and repetition can be attributed to her? Wow!
  • It was really interesting to see the way Ernest and Hadley’s marriage was portrayed, especially when things began to go to hell. I expected there to be a lot more passion, a lot of kicking and screaming and breaking things. As it was, they barely made use of the door kick plates at their sawmill apartment in Paris. Then again, I guess the lack of passion was one of the biggest reasons for the divorce in the first place.
  • The descriptions of Hadley’s feelings when she realized that Pauline and Hemingway were having an affair right under her nose. That was excruciating to read about, particularly when the affair became an acknowledged thing among the three of them and Hemingway had daily trysts with Pauline after lunch. When Hadley described the knots in her stomach from knowing what those two were doing, I could feel my own stomach turning. Poor woman.
  • I’m glad that Hadley got out of that relationship and was able to find lasting love with someone else. It seemed, from this book at least, that she deserved it.

Disliked:

  • This book really dragged in some places. It took me a while to get into it, and there were some slow spots in the middle as well. The most engrossing part was when Hemingway began writing his famous stuff (such as The Sun Also Rises), and then when Pauline came on the scene. Lots of boring stuff filled the pages in between, though, including Bumby’s various illnesses.
  • There wasn’t enough Scott and Zelda for my tastes. I know the focus was supposed to be on Hemingway and Hadley, but I felt Scott and Zelda deserved more than a cameo appearance.

Rating:

I’m always skeptical when picking up a critical and commercial success like The Paris Wife because I end up disappointed more often than not. But this one was surprisingly good despite its flaws. Several times as I was reading, I thought it was underwhelming, but the last third was very good and packed a powerful punch. I give the book 4 stars out of 5.

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