Why do we need yet another book about the life and times of Ernest Hemingway, especially when there are already so many good ones? Because this particular book, The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, portrays the fledgling young writer through the eyes of Hadley Richardson, the woman married to him during those early Paris years. McLain chooses a fictional format, populating her novel with a panorama of historic figures while imagining what might have been going on in Hadley’s head. Deeply in love, acquiescent, forgiving, and increasingly tormented by her husband’s misbehavior, Hadley describes what most readers already know about Ernest Hemingway but does so from her own particular perspective. The result isn’t always pretty, but it seems to me to be a convincing picture, not only of literary Paris life in the 1920s, but also of a marriage destined almost from the outset for failure.
McLain acknowledges that there already are many fine biographies of the characters she describes. Hemingway himself, in A Moveable Feast, wrote about those early years when he was a struggling artist attempting to hone his craft, and many other writers have pictured his life before fame twisted his ego. McLain, however, wants to bring something new to Hadley and Hemingway’s story. She explains in A Note on Sources that “my intention became to push deeper into the emotional lives of the characters and bring new insight to historical events, while staying faithful to the facts.” She wants to examine the enigma that is Ernest Hemingway and how his self-centered persona dominated his relationship with his first wife, Hadley.
At the same time, McLain also puts herself inside Hemingway’s creative mind. Every once in a while, she adds a brief italicized chapter that reveals Hemingway’s interpretation of what is happening to his marriage. Most of The Paris Wife is viewed through Hadley’s center of consciousness, but the few passages imagined by Hemingway add both depth and breadth to the psychological impasse that is growing between the young married couple. Rather than point a finger at Hemingway, whose behavior often is unconscionable, McLain depicts a genuine human being—flawed, often guilt-ridden, distraught, and utterly unable to control his impulses.
Marching through The Paris Wife pages are many other well-known characters, too. McLain breathes life into their eccentricities. Underscoring the unfettered lifestyles of American writers in 1920s Europe are insights into the domestic domain of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the odd little stories of Sherwood Anderson, the crazed madness of Ezra Pound, the poetic presence of Archibald MacLeish, even the exotic wildness of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. One friend of Hadley’s justifies the constant drinking and incessant partying and predictable infidelity. “I get why no one bothers with the usual rules,” he says. “I was in the war, too, you know. Nothing looks or feels the same anymore, so what’s the point?” He understands why her husband can be so single-minded about his writing and so insouciant about his marriage.
Some readers may think McLain pictures a more sympathetic Ernest Hemingway than the real-life figure deserves. I think her novel is best read, however, by remembering that she is viewing this paradoxical man as an adoring wife would see him. Hadley enters marriage knowing full well that her husband cannot be tamed or contained. Even when his errant behavior increasingly encroaches into their life together, she understands and even sympathizes with what drives him. How she works to save her own sanity and to salvage her own soul is at the heart of this psychologically astute portrayal of The Paris Wife. – Ann Ronald
Also available by McClain: Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses; A Ticket to Ride; Stumble, Gorgeous; Less of Her.