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The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is a new novel, endorsed on the cover by Nancy Horan who wrote the intensely riveting novel Loving Frank about a period in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Paris Wife, like Loving Frank, is also a fictional history of a marriage – this one between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. They were married in the fall of 1921 and left, in December, for Paris where they would live for most of their marriage.

On this recommendation I expected to enjoy this book – and I did. The Paris Wife is not as intense as Loving Frank but it is engaging and it certainly provides an insight into the early years of Ernest Hemingway’s life as an emerging writer. I don’t need to tell you that he succeeded in becoming one of America’s most well known writers – all of his books still in print and still being read today.

I found myself wondering, however, if I will ever re-read a Hemingway novel, as I left this book feeling more than ever that Ernest Hemingway was a man who used women for his own convenience. Hadley Richardson loved Ernest Hemingway – and he certainly needed her – it was her small inheritance that got them both to Paris where he intended to make his name as a writer. There they meet Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and Ezra Pound, all of whom become supportive friends – but only until they uttered criticism of Hemingway’s work.

In this post-World War I, jazz age world, of fast women and hard drinking men, the wealthy supported the struggling painters and writers, and they all lived for the day. This is the Paris of Picasso, “French painters, and Russian dancers, and American writers.” Even the Hemingways, living in poverty in comparison to many of their “friends”, had help in the house, and always, always enough money for absinthe in the many bars and restaurants they frequented every day.

We get to know a man, only 21 years old in 1921, having survived a leg wound in Italy is haunted by his experiences in World War I. He is estranged from his wealthy family, and it is Hadley Richardson who takes on the job of looking after Ernest Hemingway. She loves him with all her heart and soul. Ernest Hemingway is a very needy man – his writing absolutely comes first – but he needs the safety of a home to come back to. Their life together is lived all on his terms, and Hadley soon realizes that she must not make demands – she must simply make life as safe and comfortable as possible for her husband. This is a man who suffers bouts of depression, who obsesses over every word he puts on paper, each word tortured over and carefully chosen.

During this time, as well as working on his own fiction, Ernest Hemingway is reporting on events in Europe for the Toronto Star. For a short period of time he and Hadley live in Toronto, in a miserable Bathurst Street flat, while Hemingway works for the Toronto Star. All of the time he worked in Toronto, Hemingway could not work on his fiction, “I’ll be on the streetcar and feel the words of a story bubbling up, but then I have to choke them off and go to work. At the end of the day there aren’t words left.” Not a happy time, and they are soon on a boat back to Paris.

We find F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, in Paris on the Hemingway’s return. There is friendship, and jealousy at the success of Fitzgerald’s novels. And there is difficulty in the marriage – Hadley is, indeed, the Paris wife, but she is no longer holding her husband’s attention. Ernest Hemingway – in spite of the boxing, the running with the bulls, all the macho man stuff – is really a weak man and when a strong-willed woman comes along who demands that he become hers, he just doesn’t have what it takes to realize that he is being a fool. Losing far more than he might gain, he sees a pretty, adoring face, an athletic body, and wealth - and that’s that.

The Paris Wife is a pleasure to read – a well written, well researched novel, and an intimate look at the marriage of a famous man and a woman who gave it her best.

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