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The Paris Wife

by Paula McLain

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Meeting through mutual friends in Chicago, Hadley is intrigued by brash "beautiful boy" Ernest Hemingway, and after a brief courtship and small wedding, they take off for Paris, where Hadley makes a convincing transformation from an overprotected child to a game and brave young woman who puts up with impoverished living conditions and shattering loneliness to prop up her husband's career.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 343 (next | show all)
The Hudson Review,
Vol. 64, No. 2 (SUMMER 2011), pp. 365-371

"What kind of writing pays the best?"
"Ransom notes." - Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty

Samuel Johnson FAMOUSLY OBSERVED, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." I am sure the learned doctor uttered that mainly in jest, for even the authors of potboilers must have their pride. To labor for months and years on a project demands more than the hope of pecuniary reward. The need to convert one's inner vision to print is the true fuel for the engine of production. Seven new books reviewed here have differing themes, subjects, and styles, but all struck me as being written not at all for wages, but out of urgency.

Paula McLain's The Paris Wife is a fast paced and richly emotional fictional biography of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson. Even his detractors concede that Hemingway reinvented the novel at least for a time, and the era in which he lived was unique and dramatic, but living with such an enfant terrible was a trial. Self-absorbed, haughty, and sometimes petulant, Hemingway tried the patience of not one but four wives. Hadley was a sweet, sensible Midwesterner, but she fell in love with a man who was not constant, and little by little she saw the notion of who she thought they were break asunder. Hemingway always felt he had to marry the woman he was having an affair with, and so marriage was an intense but temporary phenomenon. In Chicago he was sincere and loving, but in France, drinking too much with the Fitzgeralds and the Murphys, in need of not just adulation but worship, he drifted out of her orbit. The essence of her love for him was something just short of idolatry. "I'd love to look like you," she says. "I'd love to be you." But knowing this wish to be another person is a wish born of insecurity she adds, "It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking."

To get inside the woman as a person in her own right, not an accessory to the great man, required research and a great deal of skill, and the result is a voice that is convincing. One of the best rendered parts of the book is Hemingway in Spain to see the bullfights. As he waxes enthusiastic, rhapsodizing the drama of the bullring, the matadors, and the bull, McLain lets his own words damn him as rather ponderous, investing too much meaning in mere primitive behaviors. For a man of sophistication who prided himself on his worldliness and cynicism, he could be credulous to the point of silly.

The judgment on Hemingway is still mixed. He won a Nobel Prize, but Vladimir Nabokov was not impressed, once remarking, "As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early forties, something about bells, balls, and bulls, and I loathed it." Faulkner observed, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." Hadley comes out of the battle seeming not only the kinder person, but the more noble.

A word about the state of books today is in order: The Random House website for this novel has notes for book clubs and recipes for food and drinks of the Hemingway era. A book today is not a cultural phenomenon but a product with spinoffs and merchandising possibilities. A writer is not an artist but a brand. It is all too depressing for anyone who loves literature for itself, but I urge you to forgive The Paris Wife for the handiwork of marketers. The commercial face they have painted does it a disservice and shouldn't put you off from reading it. It is a wonderful novel that engages and illuminates an incredible period.

Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’: A novel about Hemingway’s first wife
By Donna Rifkind
The Washington Post
April 17, 2011

Paula McLain’s historical novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage has been climbing up the best-seller lists as steadily as reviewers have been dismissing it. The Los Angeles Times called the book “a Hallmark version” of Hemingway’s Paris years, hampered by “pedestrian writing and overpowering sentiment.” The New York Times concurred, calling Hemingway’s wife Hadley “a stodgy bore” and McLain’s prose cliche-ridden and plodding. So who’s right: enthusiastic book-buying audiences or unsympathetic critics?

Score one for the consumers. “The Paris Wife” is a richer and more provocative book than many reviewers have acknowledged. What they call cliches are simply conventions that all historical novels share, including Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank,” the acclaimed best seller that McLain’s book superficially resembles. And “The Paris Wife” is a more ambitious effort than just a Hallmark version of Americans in Paris. It’s an imaginative homage to Hadley Richardson Hemingway, whose quiet support helped her young husband become a writer, and it gives readers a chance to see the person Hemingway aspired to be before fame turned him into something else.

Building her fictional but scrupulously true-to-life narration around many source materials, including two full-length biographies of Hadley as well as Hemingway’s posthumous memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” McLain begins by dramatizing how damaged Ernest and Hadley were by the time they met in Chicago in 1920. Hadley’s father had killed himself in their St. Louis home when she was 13, a grim foreshadowing of Ernest’s father’s suicide and, decades later, Ernest’s own. She had also mourned the deaths of a beloved older sister and her mother.

Ernest, who had been seriously wounded in Italy during the Great War while a teenager, was suffering from the shaking nightmares and depression that today we call post-traumatic stress disorder and was then known as shell shock. This early brush with death had a profound influence on much of Hemingway’s future behavior and on all the fiction he wrote. McLain is right to underscore it, along with Hadley’s abundant sympathy for his suffering, with compassionate sensitivity.

Ernest and Hadley were down when they met, but they weren’t out. He was 21 and burning to be a writer. She was 28 and yearning to be a wife. They fell hard for each other. If the novel’s beginning sections stumble over a few expository bumps (Hadley: “What do you mean to do?” Ernest: “Make literary history, I guess.”), the narrative finds its flow a few months after the couple’s wedding, when they make their way to Paris. Hadley’s impressions of the city — dirty, war-shocked, tawdry and raw — stand out against Ernest’s instantaneous delight, though in time she came to appreciate “the oddity and the splendor.”

There was no doubt that here, on the cheap, Ernest was able to make Paris his informal university. Here he could learn from working-class Parisians as well as expatriate intellectuals, many of whom — notably Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein — served as mentors who helped him forge a blazingly new way to write fiction. He could study the Cezannes at the Musee du Luxembourg, figuring out how to translate the depths of their purity into language. And he could devote long, arduous hours to writing in cafes and garrets, knowing that Hadley, who hoped for his success as fervently as if it were her own, would be waiting for him soothingly at home.

Like all perfect setups, this one would not last. The tale of its ruin is familiar, but it gains freshness from Hadley’s point of view. With his first flush of literary notoriety, Ernest cast off his mentors, alienating them with a self-sabotaging viciousness that became a lifelong habit. At the same time, his social circle widened to include a recklessly modern new crowd, including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Duff Twysden — the model for Lady Brett Ashley in “The Sun Also Rises” — and Sara and Gerald Murphy. Their high-life bohemianism threatened Hadley, who was by now happily if squarely encumbered with a baby son. Then, in a still-sickening betrayal, Ernest engineered an exit from his marriage by conducting a prolonged, open affair with Hadley’s friend Pauline Pfeiffer, the perilously chic Vogue staffer who became the second of his four wives.

McLain writes about Hadley’s pain during the death throes of her marriage with a terrible delicacy, suitable for this modest, steadfast woman who was nobody’s fool. (It’s clear that the author knows plenty about abandonment: Her 2003 memoir, “Like Family,” is a scorchingly frank reminiscence of growing up in foster homes in the 1970s.) At a low point, when Ernest, Hadley and Pauline are vacationing together in southern France, Hadley takes note of their three bicycles on a rock path. “You could see just how thin each kickstand was under the weight of the heavy frame, and how they were poised to fall like dominoes or the skeletons of elephants,” she says. Hemingway fans will not fail to remember the haunting image in his story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” when death approaches “in pairs, on bicycles, and moved absolutely silently on the pavements.”

Fame turned Hemingway into a self-crafted legend, an archetype and finally a parody. He was, as Joseph Epstein wrote in The Washington Post in 1970, “the first of the American writers we came to know too well.” Part of McLain’s accomplishment in this origin story is to make us look again at the Paris husband behind the Paris wife; not at the mythical swaggering Papa, but at the young, death-consumed writer who became a poet of death, who invented a new language to bring it to life, and whose brute emotional literary power will not be dismissed.
Tim Weed

When is a Prologue Necessary? Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife

8683812When does a novel require a prologue? Never, many would argue. Ask any agent, editor or wizened veteran of the novel-writing craft: if you can dispense with a prologue, do. And yet, so many novels have prologues. What gives?

This is a craft issue that has interested me for a long time, the more so now, as I embark on a new draft of a novel I’ve been working on. At a recent literary event at which Paula McClain was a featured author, a friend mentioned the prologue to The Paris Wife, and how highly he thought of it. I’d read the book a few years ago and loved it, in part because of my long-term interest in the life and work of Ernest Hemingway, but mostly because it’s just such an ambitious, beautiful, readable novel. But I hadn’t paid much attention to the underlying structure, and I picked it up a few days ago to re-read the prologue.

In common with the rest of McClain’s novel, the prologue is beautifully written. It gives us our first taste of the book’s voice, which is a lovely voice steeped in the language and rhythms of the period, one that McClain succeeds in maintaining throughout the novel. But the voice could just as easily have been introduced in Chapter One, and the question I was interested in was, is McClain’s prologue necessary? After re-reading it a few times, I think it is. Here are two reasons:

The first reason is that it sets the stage for the novel’s action in an alluring way, evoking for the reader some important elements of the book’s historical setting: the lingering trauma of WWI and the legendary ambiance of 1920s Paris:

“Interesting people were everywhere just then. The cafés of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers. On any given night, you could see Picasso walking from Sant-Germain to his apartment in the rue de Grands Augustins, always exactly the same route and always looking quietly at everyone and everything. Nearly anyone might feel like a painter walking in the streets of Paris then because the light brought it out in you, and the shadows alongside the buildings, and the bridges which seemed to want to break your heart, and the sculpturally beautiful women in Chanel’s black sheath dresses, smoking and throwing back their heads to laugh.”

This is wonderful stuff, intentionally reminiscent of Hemingway’s great final opus, A Moveable Feast. Reading it, I was irresistibly drawn to a novel set in this fascinating world. The thing is, the actual storybegins when Hadley Richardson meets Ernest Hemingway, not in Paris but in the American Midwest. So without this prologue or its equivalent, we wouldn’t have had this delicious and highly seductive foretaste.

The second reason, even more compelling, comes in the final paragraph of the prologue:

“This isn’t a detective story – not hardly. I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well-made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.”

I felt a kind of internal shiver when I read this passage, even for the second and third time, and I suspect most other readers did too. In an organic and strikingly visual manner, McClain has put us on notice: get ready, a life-wrecking disaster is on the way. Why would McClain reveal this important plot development, which is a major dramatic feature of the book, so early? Probably because she felt that the first part of her story would have had insufficient dramatic tension without it. We need to experience the charming, innocent phase of the relationship, the falling in love and trying to make it work, so that we become attached to this couple and have a stake in the success of their relationship. That way it’s all the more dramatic and meaningful when the relationship is broken up by the “pretty otter in my kitchen.”

If McClain had begun the book without introducing the specter of Pauline Pfeiffer waiting in the wings, we might not have felt as much impetus to read on. As it is, we as readers have been placed in a deliciously uncomfortable state of having more information than the characters; we know what’s going to befall them, and so we are filled with dread. This uncomfortable state of foreknowledge is known as dramatic irony. It’s an extremely effective tool for creating suspense. Without the prologue, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position. Perhaps we would have read on anyway, buoyed by the intrinsic interest of the story and by McClain’s lovely writing. Or perhaps not.

So yes, the prologue to The Paris Wife feels necessary. And it’s brilliantly done.
  meadcl | Jun 8, 2021 |
E. Hemmingway first wife . ( )
  pgabj | May 7, 2021 |
Really enjoyed the trip back to 1920's Paris. ( )
  FurbyKirby | Jan 5, 2021 |
Before Ernest Hemmingway was the famous author of hie time he was a struggling writer, trying to figure out how to make ends meet, trying to find his voice. In the 1920s he meets Hadley Richardson in Chicago and after a whirlwind, and often long-distance, romance they marry and move to Paris. Paris is the city to be in for the new emerging modernist writers, from Joyce to Stein, anyone who is anyone spends a considerable amount of time in Paris. There, Ernest is convinced, he can find his voice and write. Hadley is content to go wherever Ernest will be happy, she will support and look after him through all his struggles.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Ernest Hemmingway, all I know about him before this book was that he was a big-game hunter, into bullfights and drinking. That he was a typical “white macho author”, or a bit of an asshole.

Well, this book certainly confirmed that impression. He was utterly unlikeable. I’m not saying that I didn’t feel some sympathy for him, all he went through in the war, and he obviously had some depression issues, but you know what, so what. He was utterly horrible to Hadley, even when he was supposed to be utterly in love with her.

And Hadley herself, good lord she was such a weak character throughout the book. I just couldn’t like her, by the end she had grown a little, but that was almost after the story told in the book. Throughout the novel she was a drip. I didn’t get why Ernest loved her. And I certainly didn’t understand why she loved him.

The overall opinion I formed about Hemmingway through this book is that he was a weak and insecure individual who made himself feel like a big man by insulting everyone around him and putting them down.

The book did succeed, however, in making more curious about Hemmingway himself, and I could even see myself trying to read one of his books at some point. I do recall picking up The sun also rises at some point1 but I think I was 13 or 14. I didn’t make it past the first chapter.

I’m not sure I would have stuck with this one if it wasn’t a book club read. It redeemed itself a little in the final chapter or so, but not enough for me to say I enjoyed the book at all. I’m sure McLain did plenty of research but I think that comes across more than the story, and for me, when I’m reading a fictional story I want to be able to empathise with at least one of the characters, even if I disagree with them. Here I was just annoyed and frustrated by the pair. ( )
  Fence | Jan 5, 2021 |
I had a hard time connecting with Hadley and a hard time getting through this book. It didn't move. I felt like I was reading the same story for 2/3 of it: they drink, she worries and has no self esteem or drive, he wrecks some friendship/relationship. Over and over and over. Blah. ( )
  pmichaud | Dec 21, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 343 (next | show all)
Paula McLain has built “The Paris Wife” around Hadley. Or at least she has planted Hadley in the midst of a lot of famous, ambitious people. The advantage to this technique is that it allows the reader to rub shoulders and bend elbows with celebrated literary types: the stay-at-home way of feeling like the soigné figure on the book cover. The drawback is that Ms. McLain’s Hadley, when not in big-league company that overshadows her, isn’t a subtly drawn character. She’s thick, and not just in physique. She’s slow on the uptake, and she can be a stodgy bore.
Indeed, this book is a more risky affair than its sometimes sugary surface betrays. Taking up the Hemingway story inevitably means comparisons with Papa himself, and McLain courageously draws fire by including interludes written from his perspective: hard-bitten monologues with such lines as "You might as well bring yourself down and make yourself stinking sick with all you do because this is the only world there is." It's not exactly up there with John Cheever's classic parody, but it certainly does the job.

An appealing companion volume to A Moveable Feast, then, but once it's finished, turn back to the original, with its cool, impressionistic prose. It can hardly be said that the least interesting thing about Hemingway is the way he lived his life, but let's not forget that it's his writing that endures.
An imaginative, elegantly written look inside the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson.
added by Shortride | editKirkus Reviews (Jan 15, 2011)
Colorful details of the expat life in Jazz Age Paris, combined with the evocative story of the Hemingways' romance, result in a compelling story that will undoubtedly establish McLain as a writer of substance. Highly recommended for all readers of popular fiction.
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Susanne Wells (Nov 15, 2010)
The Paris Wife, McLain has taken their love story, partially told by Hemingway himself in A Moveable Feast, and fashioned a novel that's impossible to resist. It's all here, and it all feels real...

» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Paula McLainprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bastide-Foltz, SophieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dinçer, YaseminTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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It is not what France gave you but what it did not take from you that was important. -Gertrude Stein
There's no one thing that's true. It's all true. -Ernest Hemingway
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Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.
He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that.
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Meeting through mutual friends in Chicago, Hadley is intrigued by brash "beautiful boy" Ernest Hemingway, and after a brief courtship and small wedding, they take off for Paris, where Hadley makes a convincing transformation from an overprotected child to a game and brave young woman who puts up with impoverished living conditions and shattering loneliness to prop up her husband's career.

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