Book Review: The Paris Wife

Ernest Hemingway is haunting me.

Recently, I rewatched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Guess who’s woven throughout the story? Hemingway. Then, I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It may be about Hadley Hemingway, Papa’s first wife, but Hemingway is definitely one of the primary characters. Then, I went to see The Words last weekend. And throughout the movie there are nods to Hemingway: Bradley Cooper’s character visiting Hem’s haunts in Paris, another character reading The Sun Also Rises and being inspired, the plot line of someone losing all of their written work on a train. All Hemingway nods.

 

And let’s just say it this way: Papa and I don’t have a friendly relationship. I have always wanted to like Hemingway. It just seemed like the writerly thing to do. Plus, he’d been a journalist, spent time in Missouri, married two women from St. Louis, and even spent time in Piggott, Arkansas, at second wife Paulie Pfeiffer’s family home—a home I visited once when I was working on a day trip travel series for the newspaper in Sikeston, Missouri.

But all my attempts to love Hemingway’s writing have fallen flat. I’ve started and never finished For Whom the Bell Tolls more times than you can count. When I read Hemingway, I get annoyed by his sentence style rather than awed. This from a woman whose senior review of her work included a comment from a magazine professional that one of her stories reminded her of Hemingway, in the way I described the hot, dusty roads. I’ve always liked that comment—but I’ve never been a big Hemingway fan.

But a couple of years ago, I read a fiction piece about Hemingway. It was interesting and stirred my interest in him again. (I made another stab at For Whom the Bell Tolls and failed.) I saw Midnight in Paris and laughed at the caricature of Hemingway. And somewhere along the way, I kept seeing The Paris Wife by Paula McLain appear on best-seller lists or lists of books you should read. So, I did. And while it made me hate Hemingway for his selfishness and cry for the deep sense of loss and yearning nothing ever really filled for him, it was also an extremely good book.

In The Paris Wife, McLain tells the story of Hadley Richardson who became Hadley Hemingway, Papa’s first wife—before anyone even called him that. She was the wife who believed he had greatness before he’d proven it; the one who went with him to Paris so he could exercise his talent among the ex-patriates already there (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein); and who stood beside him when he broke ties with nearly all of them. She supported him in his work and also with her trust fund. She loved him, despite all of his flaws and his violent temper.

The book is fiction, but doesn’t play fast and loose with the facts. It’s fiction because it’s told in Hadley’s voice, with a few snippets when Ernest himself breaks in. Basically, it recounts their marriage, which lasted almost 5 years and produced one son, John Nicanor Hemingway, called Bumby by his parents and later in life, Jack. Hemingway basically ruined the marriage with his affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who had been Hadley’s friend and became his second wife.

At the end of this novel, I cried. I was really mad at Hemingway and identified somehow with Hadley, the woman who assumed she didn’t really deserve him anyway. And in the end, she turned out to be the better, stronger person—at least in my opinion. Hemingway once wrote of Hadley, years later after the dissolution of their marriage and when he’d married 3 more times: “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her.” The final book Hemingway wrote, A Moveable Feast, recounted his marriage to Hadley and his life in Paris in those early years. In many ways, it was his final tribute to her, a remarkable woman who had every right to say terrible things about him, but referred to him kindly, calling him a “prince” in later interviews. He called her the winter of 1961 to talk about their marriage and A Moveable Feast. Later that summer, he committed suicide.

So, if you want a well-written book that’s fiction but pretty true to the facts, read The Paris Wife. And then we can talk about how I’m still a little mad at Hem.

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