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'.
Reviews of The Paris Wife on Amazon (UK)
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