Paula McLain – The Paris Wife | Review

(Ballantine Books)

The Paris Wife is a meticulously researched account of Hadley Hemingway’s life in Paris, prior to Ernest’s initial rise to fame from the publishing of The Sun Also Rises.  Here at PopMythology, we have not only covered the account of notable Papa Hemingway hater Zelda Fitzgerald, Z, but our Jess Kroll also voted Hem one of “10 Popular Artists Who Are Considered Jerks” in part, for ruining the life of Hadley Richardson.  Thus we thought it would be fair and thorough research to read this partially fictionalized image of the marriage as presented from Hadley’s perspective.

Hadley was born in St. Louis, MO and led an extremely sheltered childhood after a fall and subsequent year of bed rest.  She attempted college at Bryn Mawr, but withdrew because of her “delicate condition” and spent most of her young adulthood nursing her sick mother.  When she was 29, her mother died and she visited a friend in Chicago, at which time she met Ernest Hemingway at a party.

Hadley, finally freed from her mother’s excessively cloistering influence, was entranced by Ernest’s energy and vitality.  Hem was smarting from a rejection by a nurse he met recuperating from his WWI injuries, and was attracted to Hadley’s warm, nurturing spirit.  Both seemed somewhat immature and after a brief, impulsive courtship, moved to Paris to begin a life, if not of outright squalor at least of deprivation, trying to launch Ernest’s career as a writer.  The book chronicles the time through the birth of their son up to their divorce following Hemingway’s affair with Pauline Pfeiffer.

Author Paula McLain (photo: Stephen Curti)

These facts are well known, but the The Paris Wife uniquely draws on Hadley’s voice from her writing and letters in order to give the reader a sense of her experiences and motives.  We cannot know for sure if McLain has succeeded but if she has, the general impression of Hadley is one of a rather garden-variety wallflower.  The description of the courtship had all the passion and raw emotion of Monty Python’s semaphore version of Wuthering Heights.  In fact, the whole relationship of the Hemingways seemed very ordinary and not in any way remarkable.

There is also very little sense of Hem’s much ballyhooed misogynism, and in the book he seems to be mostly a loving husband.  Even his affair with Pauline seems somewhat common, occurring for rather mundane reasons relating to Ernest’s rise to fame and Hadley’s preference for quiet domesticity.  Hadley even expresses relief at the breakup and goes on to live a very happy life with journalist Paul Mowrer.  Hemingway’s decidedly tumultuous life following the divorce seems to appropriately peg him as the primary sufferer of the affair.

The couple did move in circles with rarified company such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, etc., however McLain’s account has the Hemingways existing among these luminaries almost as mere paper cut-out dolls on this glorious Parisian stage.  Perhaps this is the book’s message – a reminder that many great artists are, after all, primarily ordinary people living ordinary lives.

Hadley could also be viewed as a sort of ironic heroine, standing by her valid preference and valuable choice of a domestic family life for her and her son despite external pressures of societal fame.  These were certainly feminine mores not at all validated by the flapper set of that era.  For an entertaining story, though, give me the glitzy, “sex-on-a-mink-coat,” jazz-age couple story of the Fitzgeralds any day over this account.



About Andrea Sefler

Andrea Sefler
Andrea is a consultant and technical writer for various scientific software and instrumentation companies. She has a Ph.D. in chemistry from Berkeley and has never met a genre of music or books that she hasn’t liked. As a gamer since the days of the Apple II, Andrea can relate any number of hair-raising tales about role-playing games stored on 360 kB 5.25” floppy disks and may, someday, put them to paper.

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