Paula McLain has written a rather spectacular piece of historical fiction in her rendering of Hadley Richardson’s marriage to American literary legend Ernest Hemingway. The Paris Wife is written in Hadley’s voice, and as much as the book takes in Hemingway and a huge cast of fellow-American and other expatriate writers in Paris, the story is always Hadley’s, the voice of a young woman deeply in love.
They meet in Chicago, October 1920, at a party given by a mutual friend. She has just buried her mother back in St. Louis and he (almost eight years her junior) is not long back as an ambulance driver in the War to End All Wars, now numerically ordered as World War I. He is handsome in a dangerous way, a man of worldly assurance and small boy needs. She is a tentative, not quite shy, auburn haired beauty with little hint of the birth of the modern; she is a most unlikely candidate for the heart of young Hemingway. As the carpet is rolled back, the gramophone cranked, they step fatefully into the music of Nora Bayes singing Make Believe. It is a fitting beginning and the reader never looks back.
Nora Bayes – Make Believe 1921
After a brief courtship and a few typical missteps of the newly married, they sailed to Europe to meet his destiny as a writer. They were not alone, and for the reader who is not familiar with this slice of American letters it sounds more fictional than real. From the turn of the century to World War II, with the grand Eiffel Tower as a beacon, Paris became the watering hole of giants: Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot just to name a few. Not only writers, but publishers, artists, composers, all came to Paris, the city where modernism was embraced, encouraged and in the case of American writing, often engendered. They came with their dreams, their girlfriends, wives, boyfriends, lovers and appetites for excess. They lived believing the old rules no longer applied and the future, if there was to be one, was theirs to create.
Gertrude Stein was once asked why so many American writers left the States to live in Paris, she answered: “Your parent’s home is never a place to work it is a nice place to be brought up in. Later on there will be place enough to get away from home in the United States, it is beginning, then there will be creators who live at home.” But for the years of Hadley’s marriage to Hemingway and the birth of their son, there is no turning back, Paris is home. McLain shows us a devoted, but often questioning wife in Hadley, both proud, but eventually fearful of the turn her marriage takes.
As Hemingway’s writing career gains momentum, his personal life begins to spin out of control. The author’s ability to make the reader see Hemingway through Hadley’s eyes and heart gives this novel great power. The Paris Wife is a strong addition to the body of work illuminating the world of these American expatriates.