There were times while reading Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their life in that greatest of all cities, that the Paris the two of them inhabited in the 1920’s was a good deal more interesting than either of them were at the time. Of course, it’s hard to outshine Paris – then or now.
McLain’s book has been praised and panned by critics. I see a little of both in the book. The imagined scenes of Ernest and Hadley rubbing elbows with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Gertrude Stein lock in an impression of what these talented, but deeply flawed individuals must have been like. The Paris and France that these characters consume is rich and interesting and real.
The same cannot always be said for the love story between the young Hemingway, trying to establish himself as a writer, and the sturdy, mostly sensible Hadley who seems to shrink in significance as her ambitious, demanding husband gains his voice. She was, after all, Hemingway’s starter wife and perhaps a bit old fashioned for the times and the man. As one reviewer notes, Hadley was a “helpmate,” a woman who gave comfort and support to the emerging artist. She was not, as the attractive cover of the book tries to suggests, a fashion maven with sexy ankles.
I was struck reading this novel, which with its flaws; I have nonetheless recommended to friends, that Hemingway’s posthumous memoir – A Moveable Feast – paints a sympathetic portrait of Hadley. Hemingway even admits in that book that losing wife Number One was one of his great mistakes. And Hadley is sympathetic in McLain’s telling; I just wanted her to be a bit more assertive, less willing to accept everything the great man dished her way. Maybe Hemingway also found that he wanted something more than a helpmate when he was coming of age as a writer and then, as he hinted at the end of his life, he came to regret that he never quite again had what Hadley, the Paris wife, had given him when he was too young to know what a gift it was.
The Paris Wife is a good, if not great summer read. If you like Paris and wonder what the 1920’s there must have been like, it’s most worthwhile. The book will pick you up and plunk you down in a different era and permit you to wander there, soaking up the place that, as Hemingway said, will stay with you forever.