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Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Published by Ballantine Books
Hardcover, $25

Who would have thought that of two people in a marriage, with one of them being Ernest Hemingway, it would be his wife Hadley who is the more interesting character? Paula McLain does a marvelous job bringing this real-life woman to life in her novel, The Paris Wife. She totally captures how the very masculine, younger Hemingway enchanted the shy, almost-spinster (age 28!) woman and persuaded her to marry him.

This novel succeeds on so many different levels. It is the story of a marriage: the good times, the difficult times, and the eventual dissolution. Anyone who is or has been married can identify with the many facets and challenges of marriage, as seen through Hadley's eyes. She knew that life with an artist such as Ernest would not be easy, and this passage describing her loneliness while Ernest was off on a story exemplifies that.

"Ernest was gone for three weeks, and by the end of that time I was sleeping so badly in our bed I'd often move in the middle of the night to an upright wingback chair and try to rest there, huddled in blankets. I couldn't enjoy much of anything except walking to the Ile St. Louis to the park I'd come to love and rely on. ...I also liked to look around at the houses surrounding the park and wonder about the people who filled them, what kinds of marriages they had and how they loved or hurt each other on any given day, and if they were happy, and whether they thought happiness was a sustainable thing."

That passage pretty much sums up Hadley's thoughts during the novel- is happiness sustainable? We know it wasn't with Hemingway who married four times and killed himself.

McLain totally immerses us not only in their marriage, but in the life that the so-called Lost Generation led in the Paris of 1920s. We see the evolving relationship between Ernest and Gertrude Stein, as well as his and Hadley's relationships with Ezra Pound and his wife, and even the fascinating F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald make a memorable appearance. The reader really feels dropped into the Paris cafes, and the scenes set in Barcelona during the bullfights are so well done, you can almost see the bulls charging down the streets.

This is a wonderful book for fans of Hemingway to read, but you don't have to be a fan of his to enjoy it.  I really felt empathy for Hadley, as she moved from young bride to mother to eventually being pushed aside by her husband for another woman. Anyone who wants to read a good novel about married life would do well to choose this one.

Rating 4 of 5 stars


  1. the 28 year old spinster comment is scary! Glad times have changed!

    I know very little about Hemingway as a person but this sounds like an interesting perspective - through that of his wife.

  2. I didn't know much about Hemingway either, but this book gives a good idea of what it's like to live with a creative personality. It really immerses you in the life they led in Paris, you feel like you are there.

  3. This book made me cry as it brought out how subtle the effects of a manic depressive/bipolar person (Hemingway) can affect a initially good relationship. His self treatment with alchohol did not help. I think McLain captured the story extremely well.