Book Review: The Paris Wife

Ernest “Papa” Hemingway is one of the best known writers in the American literary canon. We know a good deal about him-four marriages, three sons, some remarkable but volatile friendships, some serious struggles in both mental and physical health. But as a woman, I’m interested in those four wives. We know a good amount about Zelda Sayers Fitzgerald, the only wife of Hemingway’s contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald. But who were those four women who married Papa?

In her 2011 novelThe Paris Wife, Paula McClain attempts to answer that question with regard to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Hadley married Papa when she was 29, and he was 22. The pair were married for about five years and had one son together. The book covers the span of time from their meeting in Chicago in 1920 until their divorce in 1927.

The novel is primarily told from Hadley’s point of view. We see Ernest as she sees him. Now, I had background knowledge about Ernest and the fate of their marriage, so I couldn’t look at him as optimistically as Hadley did. From the beginning, I knew where their relationship was headed, and a part of me definitely wanted to protest against their marriage. I wanted to warn Hadley not to marry Ernest.

One clever device used by McClain is giving us an occasional glimpse into Ernest’s mind. This allows us to see events that Hadley might unaware of as well as showing us some of the darkness with which Hemingway struggled for much of his life. We often see and understand more that darkness than Hadley did. Perhaps this is because we’re looking back on this with more knowledge than she had, but perhaps it is also because we have a window into Ernest’s mind.

The book was an enjoyable read. I loved seeing the Lost Generation from the perspective of a wife who sat next to them and spent time with them but felt that she didn’t completely fit in with them. It was interesting to see how Hadley felt about sitting with Alice Toklas (Gertrude Stein’s partner) and others like them while the “husbands” sat around talking about their art.

On the other hand, it was difficult to see Hadley’s behavior at times. I know that various Hemingway biographers have described her as somewhat childish at the time of her marriage to Papa. She seems naive about the world and about Papa. From my perspective, she seems to need someone to look after her-although she would probably resent that. She had little or no real independence prior to her marriage, and while she claims to want independence, she seems perfectly content to let her husband govern her life. She moves to Paris because that is what he wants. She follows him around Europe. Her only real act of rebellion is getting pregnant with their son, Bumby, and she often shrugs off her maternal responsibilities on nannies and such in favor of getting tight with the Lost Generation.

If the above paragraph implies that I found Hadley to be weak, that would be accurate. The only act of strength that I ever saw from her was the decision to leave her husband in light of his affair with Pauline Pfieffer. I found Hadley to be a guide of how not to act as a woman. Do not marry based on passion as she did; wait for a man who is capable of being unselfish. Papa was always a selfish being; that can be seen in his friendships, his affairs, his marriages, his relationships with family. While Hadley needed him, he did not need her, and that was one of the downfalls of their marriage. Hadley needed Papa, but she also wanted him to need her.

From my perspective, when she got married, Hadley seemed to believe that it was better to be unhappy and partnered than happy and alone. As someone who disagrees with that premise, it was interesting to see how that perspective impacted her life. I don’t think that she ever regretted marrying Hemingway, nor do I think that she should have. However, I think that she came to see that negatives of their relationship outweighed the positives. For her sake, I wish that she had seen that when she was twenty-eight rather than when she was thirty-four. However, she did find love again, and I have to believe that her second husband (Paul Mowrer) made her happier than Papa did.

Do I recommend the book? Yes, I found it to be an interesting adventure in history, art, and life.

Should you read it? Yeah, probably, if you like reading historical fiction.

Why did I only give it only four stars on GoodReads? The book was really well-written, but I spent too much of it wanting to hit Hadley upside the head. Now, that’s way more Hadley’s fault than McClain’s fault, and it’s a sign of a well-written character.

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