Paula McLain’s bestselling 2011 novel explores Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, to Hadley Richardson. Told from Hadley’s perspective, it narrates their courtship, marriage, and eventually Hemingway’s affair in Paris that drove the two apart. It’s a gorgeous and melancholy novel and I enjoyed it a lot, even though I wish it reckoned a little more deeply with Hemingway’s toxic legacy and his (to me) inexcusable treatment of Hadley.
For anyone who missed it during its first round of critical acclaim, I highly recommend The Paris Wife for historical fiction lovers. You can read my full review below.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
- publisher: Ballantine Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
- publication date: hardcover in 2011, paperback in 2012
- length: 368 pages
It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking. I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.
–from The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Biographical fiction always struggles to reconcile accuracy with art. Too accurate, and it might as well be a biography; too much artistic license, and it feels tawdry. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Paris Wife, which strikes exactly the right balance of the two.
The novel spans from Hadley’s childhood through her early 30s, which makes it all the more impressive that it’s never dry or documentary-like. We quickly learn that her father died by suicide; her mother and sister stifle her. She’s a skilled pianist who’s too listless to seek out a career.
She’s in her late 20s, watching life pass her by, when she meets a ferociously charming but troubled Ernest Hemingway on a visit to Chicago. It’s easy to see why sparks fly between them: their relationship is never artist/muse, but rather a mutual life raft for two unhappy people. The problem is that once they’re married, Ernest refuses to stay afloat.
My bias: I loathe the real-life Ernest Hemingway. I think his writing is fine; I find the mythology of him absolutely poisonous, and ultimately, I think The Paris Wife falls right into that trap: McLain doesn’t sugarcoat Hemingway’s bad behavior, but she also never quite lets him take the full force of the blame. His mental illness, his abusive upbringing, and his genius are always there to take the fall. I wish they weren’t.
Meanwhile, McLain’s characterization of Hadley is subtle and lovely. Hadley is traditional, introverted, unfashionable, and serious; she’d rather be a stay-at-home mother than an artist in her own right, which makes her feel guilty and out of place in modish 1920s Paris. Most historical fiction protagonists chafe against the restraints of their time; Hadley, on the other hand, seems to want to move backwards. It’s an intriguing change of pace.
From the beginning, Hadley is all in on her marriage. She is honest, supportive, and vulnerable with Ernest in the way that you absolutely need to be with your spouse in order to make a marriage work. Ernest, on the other hand, always has one foot out. He belittles her, lies to her, spends her trust fund unwisely, is repeatedly unfaithful, and always seems to be looking for a better option. He loves her, but he’s bad at it. Instead of choosing to be better, he sabotages.
The Paris Wife is peppered with occasional short italicized chapters told from Ernest’s perspective, about how sorry and conflicted he is. I can’t help but think that if The Paris Wife were a pure work of fiction, we wouldn’t have gotten those chapters. We would have been content to see the marriage through Hadley’s eyes only, to feel sad that sometimes we fall in love with people who change our lives but are ultimately not good for us, and to get catharsis when the marriage dissolves at the end. (Historical spoiler, I guess.)
Instead we get too much about Ernest, most frustratingly in a stilted epilogue. That’s the trouble with biographical fiction: no matter how much more I wanted of Hadley, the inevitable truth is that the most notable thing about her was always Ernest. It makes sense that McLain always keeps one eye trained on him, but it chafes anyway.
The Paris Wife is terrific: the very best of its category. It’s just funny how a piece of fiction this good can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth about the facts. ★★★★☆
Reviews and books you might also enjoy:
- Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt
- Straying by Molly McCloskey
- There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon
I purchased my own copy of The Paris Wife and was in no way compensated for this review.