Book Review: The Paris Wife

Rating: 5 out of 5

I received The Paris Wife as a graduation gift from a friend, and I must say that it was a great gift indeed! This 2011 novel by Paula McLain narrates the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Even if you don't know or like Hemingway all that much, you'll enjoy McLain's wonderfully written and researched novel.

The book starts off with Hadley, eight years Hemingway's senior, falling in love with the writer despite warnings from their friend Kate Smith. The couple married in 1921, and the rest of the novel follows their travels across America and Europe during their five-year marriage.

I loved feeling like a fly on the wall watching the most famous artists and authors of the 1920s, including Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's noble how hard these people had to work to make a living with their words, but for some of them, it's also tragic how all their fame and fortune masked deep, dark pain.

I empathized with Hadley, who never felt like she truly belonged to this group of literary giants. She called herself a hen among peacocks. And although she was a gifted pianist, she sacrificed her passions for Ernest's career. I can understand Hemingway's fierce devotion to his craft, but his selfishness and narcissism destroyed his marriage and most of his friendships.

I read The Paris Wife, knowing the basics behind Hemingway and his work, but McLain really brings the details to life, illuminating the atmospheres of France, Spain, and Germany. I felt that it was an accurate portrayal of the historical events and characters, but it was also so much more than that.

The emotion in this story was so honest and beautiful. It broke my heart witnessing Hadley and Hem suffer from depression, alcoholism, and extramarital affairs. Hadley gave everything to her husband, content with raising their son rather than share the spotlight, but their relationship collapsed due to Hem's refusal to compromise and remain faithful.

Hadley could be criticized for allowing herself to be treated like a doormat, but she knew that she was a romantic in a modern world of promiscuity and partying. She may have wanted a simple life, but at least she remained true to herself. While Hem first resisted and then dove into the good life of the literary elites, Hadley was never impressed by the lifestyle. Instead of following other wives and entering into a perverse three-way with her husband's mistress, she walked away. Lesser women would've accepted such behavior to be Mrs. Hemingway, so I admire her courage to start over.

Hadley stated that she may be just "the Paris wife," but she got the best of Hem. In the end, she found true love with journalist Paul Mowrer, married from 1933 to her natural death in 1979. Hemingway, on the other hand, skyrocketed as an author but spiraled down into three more unsuccessful marriages and suicide by shooting.

I don't think I'm spoiling much, since Hemingway's downfall is just as famous as his writing. A man traumatized by his experiences as a soldier during World War I and his own father's suicide, he paid the ultimate price for being one of the greatest American writers of all time.

Trust me, you might think you know this story, but you will still be amazed by The Paris Wife. Highly recommended!