The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife was the last big book that we ran out of at Borders. Or at least that’s how I remember it. My store got regular replenishment of it in for a while after its initial release in February 2011 and I had plans to buy a copy. I’m a Hemingway fan and read Hadley by Gioia Diliberto years ago.* I knew my Mom would like to read it, as well. However, I didn’t get around to buying it and then the publisher’s stopped sending books to Borders. But then I saw it at Costco and purchased it there (gasp!). I gave the book to my Mom to read first and she thought it was “just okay.” After hearing her unenthusiastic response I let the book fall down toward the end of my to-be-read list.

When The Paris Wife was chosen by a group of west suburban Chicago libraries for their annual community reading program and I saw that Paula McLain would be coming to town for an event, the book started creeping toward the top of my to-be-read list. I enjoyed reading it more than my Mom did. My sister has the book now, so we’ll see how her opinion tips the family scale.

What I liked about The Paris Wife, beyond the historic literary tourism, is how it shows Hadley coming into her own. Eventually. It seems to me that although she’s clearly in love with Hemingway, she’s also pretty depressed during her early years with him. Her father commits suicide, her sister dies after being burned in a fire, and then she nurses her mother who also dies. Months later she marries Hemingway, having known him for less than a year, and then mainly through letters (how romantic!). It’s little wonder she latched on to him and held on and put up with his ever-increasing bullshit.

I wouldn’t be surprised if she was clinically depressed. Then some pretty major, rather passive-aggressive things happen on her part. It’s also made pretty clear that part of Hadley’s “problem” is that she has no passion of her own. She starts to reclaim a passion and then the bottom falls out: Hadley finds out about the affair her husband has been having with one of her friends, of course, and–even better–he wants to keep on loving both of them.

Hadley and her man, 1922

We are, however, seeing Hemingway through Hadley’s eyes or at least how McLain understands their relationship. The Hemingway of The Paris Wife is initially a charming young fellow (he’s only in his early 20s at the beginning) and by the end he’s betrayed not only friends and mentors, but Hadley and it seems even himself. Hemingway morphs into the type of Parisian cafe writer that he earlier despised, writes a distasteful satire of his mentor Sherwood Anderson’s latest novel, and publishes it against the advice of everyone. Everyone, that is, except the woman he’s having the affair with who thinks she’s the one to take the talented young man to the next level of his career.

Gertrude Stein was one of Hemingway’s mentors and she eventually calls him a “careerist.” This novel struck me as a cautionary tale of what can happen to a person when success starts rolling their way if they’re not grounded. How it’s important to keep those you trusted before you were famous close to you. How you can fool yourself into thinking new things and new people aren’t just good for you, but that they’re better for you than those that supported you on your way up.

It’s a painful tale with a happy ending, for Hadley, anyway. If you’ve read The Sun Also Rises, The Garden of Eden, and/or A Moveable Feast you’ll have an idea of what to expect. It is in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris, where he famously writes of Hadley: “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” Even if you’ve never read a Hemingway novel in your life, that line alone may stir you enough to pick up The Paris Wife.

The Paris Wife
Paula McLain
Random House, February 22, 2011
Recommend to folks who like: Hemingway, love stories, Paris in the 1920s, reading about writers’ lives.
Source: bought it

*Hadley was published in 1992 by Ticknor & Fields. A new edition was released in 2011as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s Wife by HarperCollins.

For Thursday: A recap of Paul McLain’s talk for The Big Read.


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