Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Wednesday, 29 February 2012
I knew little about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, before I picked up Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife. I’d seen only a few black and white photos of her in Boris Vejdovsky’s Hemingway: A Life in Pictures and a library copy of the Biography Channel’s episode on Hemingway. I haven’t even read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s portrait of his life in Paris with Hadley, which has been on my to-read list since high school when I saw it quoted in that terrible romantic tragedy, City of Angels.

In her first work of historical fiction, Paula McLain gets inside the head of Hadley, the 28-year-old who captures the attention of a much younger Ernest Hemingway in 1920s Chicago. The pair begins an affair that intensifies through letters after Hadley’s trip to Chicago comes to an end. It’s in one of these letters that Ernest proposes, and before long, the couple finds themselves on a journey to Paris. As Hadley waits for each letter to arrive, I found myself waiting, too, captivated by McLain’s ability to capture the young Hemingway’s charm. Though most of Hemingway’s letters to Hadley haven’t survived, Hemingway kept each of the hundreds of letters she sent him, which helped McLain to illustrate the couple’s chemistry in The Paris Wife.

Most of The Paris Wife is written in Hadley’s voice, though a few passages are seen through the eyes of Ernest. At times, I wanted to shake the naive Hadley awake, frustrated as she stands by Ernest's side, even when he's pining for the nurse he fell in love with during World War I and when he begins to show signs that he's the womanizing brute known to history.

I read a lot of fiction and a lot of books about history, but The Paris Wife was my first exploration of historical fiction, at least since I was devouring books about witch hunts and the Underground Railroad for middle school book reports. Because I'm such a lover of history, I'm always skeptical of authors giving voice to real people who can no longer speak for themselves; however, I walked away from The Paris Wife with a new-found appreciation of the genre. Though McLain's Hadley was often sickly sweet, she was endearing, and without The Paris Wife her story may have mostly been told through scattered black and white photographs and the odd footnote in biographies about Ernest Hemingway.

3 comments:

  1. I need to add this book to my reading list.

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  2. Oh am very excited- especially as I think I have seen a copy in my local bookshop in Istanbul and therefore won't have to read on the kindle :)

    Marlene Detierro (Fishing Lodge Alaska)

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  3. Paris with the beginnings of the Hemingway legacy is exciting and revealing. The artistic enclave we have read about is revealed and does not disappoint. It was wonderful to meet Hadley and her young Ernest. Not to be missed.
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