Scandalous Book Review: The Paris Wife


Author: Paula McLain

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Pub Date: 2/22/2011

Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year old who has all but given up on love and happiness-until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group-the fabled “Lost Generation” – that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage – a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.

“We called Paris the great good place, then and it was. We invented it after all. We made it with our longing and cigarettes and Rhum St. James, we made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn’t ours. Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again.”

My thoughts: I have long been a little obsessed by the 1920’s, even before I started researching Zelda Fitzgerald for Scandalous Women, so I couldn’t wait to read The Paris Wife when I saw it on the shelf at the library. I’ve never been a big fan of Hemingway as a person, and I’ve only ever read A Farewell to Arms in high school, so I knew very little about his first wife Hadley Richardson. I just knew that he and F. Scott Fitzgerald had been good friends and then had a falling out and that he and Zelda had a mutual animosity society going on.

From the very first paragraph I was hooked on The Paris Wife to the point where I felt as if I were overhearing private conversations that I shouldn’t be listening to. The reader is given a view of Hemingway that isn’t often seen, a view of the young writer eager to make his mark on the world, full of self-doubt on the one hand, and extreme confidence on the other. This is not the Papa Hemingway of Key West, the lauded man of letters, but a man who has been through the hell of war and is still dealing with the after effects.

At first, I wasn’t sure about Hadley as a narrator, at times she seems a bit passive, as events unfold that she’s not really a part of. However, I soon realized that is precisely the point of the book, Hadley is a woman who has grown to accept that she is on the shelf, that her dreams of love and marriage, or even a career are behind her. A life as the spinster aunt is all that awaits her until she meets Ernest Hemingway on a trip to Chicago. It is intriguing that when they meet, Hadley’s friend Kate who it turns out was once in love with Hemingway, warns her off. Later on, another woman from the Midwest, Pauline Pfeiffer, who becomes a friend, ends up coming between Hadley and Ernest.

While Zelda struggled to come out from under the shadow of F. Scott to fulfill her own creative dreams, Hadley has a different struggle. While she once had dreams of being a concert pianist, she has come to accept her limitations as an artist but she struggles to find a way to fit into her husband’s life which is filled with creative people, writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein and painters like Man Ray and Picasso. Hadley was born in 1891, making her 8 years older than her husband, and she keenly feels that her attitudes and morals are very much of the Victorian age compared to the others in their circle who seem to embrace a more open view of sex and monogamy.

Before they arrived in Paris, Hadley seemed assured of her place in her husband’s affections and his work, but as he experiences success, he seems to shut her out. One of the most painful parts of the book occurs when Hadley reads the first draft of The Sun Also Rises and realizes that while all their acquaintances have been fictionalized in the book, she’s been left out completely. The heroine, Lady Brett, is based on the seductive Duff, who juggles multiple admirers one summer while they are in Pamplona. This novel could be about any wife who has to watch as her husband slowly slips away into a world that she is no longer a part of.

“There are some who said I should have fought harder or longer than I did for my marriage, but in the end fighting for a love that was already gone felt like trying to live in the ruins of a lost city. “

Verdict: A heartbreaking portrayal of first love, regret and torn loyalty. Paula McLain is an astonishing writer who creates a world that you don’t want to leave. I adored this book.

Highly Recommended

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Sherry said…
I read this and loved it!

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