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Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain book cover
The Paris Wife (2011) is a piece of historical-fiction about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. The novel is written from Hadley's perspective and describes her childhood before meeting Hemingway, and their infamous whirlwind romance, which took place in 1920 when Hadley was twenty-eight and Hemingway was just twenty-one. A troubled war-veteran, upcoming writer, and dashing gentleman, Ernest instantly captivated the inexperienced Hadley, and the two were quickly married, and set out for Paris in pursuit of a creative atmosphere where Hemingway's writing could flourish. Jazz-age Paris was a strange and alluring place, and Hemingway fell quickly into intellectual circles with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ford Maddox Ford. However, whilst Ernest was flourishing under the friendship and tutorship of such minds, Hadley was sidelined, and felt out of place in the stimulating atmosphere, where artists openly experimented creatively and sexually. Living on a pittance the two bounced from one experience to another, but when Hadley fell pregnant there was a shift in the relationship. Ernest's work had always been his first priority, and with a baby in-tow the marriage became strained. Soon Ernest's affections strayed to Pauline Pfeiffer, one of Hadley's close friends, leaving the marriage to fall slowly and painfully apart, with Hadley an unwilling yet passive participant in an uncomfortable three-way relationship. As the novel picks apart the end of the marriage, the emotional scarring is evident, and no one escapes unblemished.

The Paris years were some of the most crucial in Hemingway’s development as a writer and, whilst it’s clear the marriage won't last from the outset, The Paris Wife is an intimate portrait of a writer finding his voice and two people defining their own boundaries within the world and their marriage; growing together and apart, and each creating their own personal reality. This is reflected in the Paris society they inhabit, through which an atmosphere of lost faith permeates. The opportunity to discard the old rules and create something new is fresh and exciting, but whilst Ernest embraces this, Hadley simply moves at a different pace to the avant-garde that surrounds her; happy to revel in the conservative delights of Henry James, Hadley feels no affinity with the modernism which is taking off around her. She then, offers a stoic and passive counter-point to Hemingway’s volatile, passionate character. Inevitably, married to such an enigmatic man, Hadley is forced to endure the envy and unwanted interest of other women, and the themes of female rivalry and lack of sexual conformity run throughout the novel.

McClain appears to have done her research thoroughly, and her assertions are roundly confirmed by Hemingway’s own memoir of the period, A Moveable Feast. However, there is a definite sense that the writing is too tied up with facts, and often descends into a list of occasions and acquaintances, which after a while become repetitive and add little to the story beyond background noise. Oddly, as they are based on real people, the characters, particularly those that make up the background, feel a little flat, lacking the potency of well-constructed characters, and again there is a sense that McLain was hesitant to deviate too much from known facts; her characters suffering for this. Added to the general factuality and lack of emotion, an awful lot of the romance between both Ernest and Hadley, and Ernest and Pauline happens off-stage, and this sets an odd tone of artificiality to the relationships, with little grounding in the reasons why each participant is in the relationship. However, the novel comes into its own in the concluding chapters when the Hemingway's marriage breaks down – here there is raw emotion written subtly and sensitively. Also amongst the novel’s achievements is the depiction of jazz-age Paris, or more specifically its atmosphere, which is good, as is the intellectual and cultural revolution taking place amongst a sub-set expatriates.

Hemingway is clearly a far more enigmatic character than Hadley, but McLain's great success is to keep the novel firmly centred on her protagonist. However, this does bring into question exactly how interesting a subject Hadley really is. Undoubtedly she supported Ernest whilst he was doing great things, but life through her eyes is rather dull, and there is a sense that the novel aims to establish her role in Hemingway’s success, rather than as an interesting muse. The only time when the narrative shifts from Hadley's first-person to omniscient third-person is as a way to show Ernest conducting his affair; an incredibly clumsy device and really McLain should have found a better solution.

To write other people's lives is always difficult, particularly when dealing with a character as infamous as Ernest Hemingway, but McLain does, roundly, a good job. The main problem is lack of development in Hadley’s character, and the slightly dull and fact-based plot. With a real lack of emotional development, one struggles to see exactly what the point of the novel is and though it is coherently written, McLain fails to employ the most essential of novelistic skills; choosing what to exclude for the benefit of the story, whilst equally failing to spread her own creative wings and truly make the story her own. Clearly McLain takes a great interest in Hadley – whether this is transposed to the reader is doubtful – but one thing is clear, this novel goes some way to ensuring that Hadley Richardson, one of Hemingway’s four wives, is thought of as more than just the titular 'paris wife'.

I normally enjoy books about writers and the writing process, so I was excited when I picked this up hoping for either an insight into the life of an artist, or for the effect creative pursuits can have on those around the artist. In truth, I didn't feel fulfilled on either score. There are things to like about this, but really I just found it dull and pretty lifeless.


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Reviews of The Paris Wife on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Paris Wife on Amazon (US)

3 comments:

Reading this, the following phrase kept popping up in my mind:

“All writing is infidelity” - The Information, Martin Amis

Just thought I'd put that out there :)

I might have added this to the Paris in July maybes but I do struggle with overly fact based historical fiction. I find these sort of books are better to dip into than read in one go.

Yep, I'd probably recommend people pick up A Moveable Feast before this one anyway, but still an interesting read if you're into the period or Hemingway himself.

By the way, the Paris in July plane looks great!