The Paris Wife

By Paula McLain

The Short Take:

This highly factual novel gives a voice to Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Living in Bohemian Paris surrounded by artists and writers, old-fashioned Hadley loved and supported her husband completely. Frankly, my 21st century eyes had a hard time not seeing her as a doormat. However, she was actually much more than that; and the book as a whole was utterly mesmerizing.

Why?

McLain’s novel paints a wonderfully intricate portrait of Paris in the 1920s, as well as telling the story of a love that was probably doomed from the start. Heavily researched, with details like a chipmunk pelt coat, the names of various cafes and night spots, and the constant use of cutesy nick names to make one realize just how different — yet also the same — things were then.

By writing from Hadley’s point of view, McLain gives her voice center stage despite the fact she lives in the shadow of her husband. It’s hard for modern attitudes to fully accept Hadley’s total commitment to supporting her husband’s writing. However, her behavior was probably closer to the norm for the times; at least outside the rarified circles of artists and writers. And, she has the quiet strength necessary to simply put up with someone like Hemingway.

The remarkable supporting cast of luminaries, from Ezra Pound to the Fitzgeralds to Gertrude Stein and more, brings even more interest to what is already a fascinating story. After all, we’re talking about the larger-than-life Hemingway and the woman who gave so much of herself to launch his career. That’s pretty potent stuff.

Frankly, I don’t think Hemingway would have made it without her by his side at the start. Her love lifted him up. Conversely, his love gave her a new way to see the world. Maybe she wasn’t such a doormat after all?

A Little Plot:

In her late 20s, Hadley Richardson has basically given up on love and is turning into a hermit. A visit to Chicago brings her into contact with the 21-year-old Ernest Hemingway and she is immediately smitten. Of course, so is nearly every other female he encounters.

However, Hemingway returns her affections and after a quick courtship, they marry. The newlyweds then follow the advice of the writer Sherwood Anderson and move to Paris to mingle with other creative people. Here, Hadley is immersed in a far different world, far wittier and worldly than she could ever be. However, her sole interest continues to be supporting Hemingway’s writing, and nothing can sway her from that — even when “the other woman” threatens.

But the mores of the Jazz Age are more than even the tenacious Hadley can stand against.

 

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