I absolutely love Paris; I’ve only been there twice — both for short periods – but I think it’s the most amazing city in the world. And I’m slowly (as I read more of his work) becoming enamoured with Ernest Hemingway. So Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, which tells the story of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, whom he married in Chicago but moved with to Paris, was a pretty safe bet.
I hadn’t realized that Hemingway’s final work, A Moveable Feast (which I have not read), was a memoir that told of his time in Paris with Hadley and the generation of literary intellectuals hanging out there at the time — Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and others. McLain, having read A Moveable Feast, has opted in her book to tell the other side of the story — Hadley’s side — from the first person, relying on correspondence, notes, and incredible amounts of research. And as you read The Paris Wife, you can’t help but think that Hadley is writing it herself.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Hemingway and Hadley’s marriage didn’t last; most who have even a passing familiarity with Hemingway know that he had many wives (four) and an untold number of lovers outside of his marriages. But at the end of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway notably said that he would have rather died than have fallen in love with anyone but Hadley. He ruined their marriage, but it appears that when he looked back on his life, he realized that she was his one true love.
This story is so well-written that it leaves me deeply torn. The first Hemingway book that I read was The Sun Also Rises, and only through reading The Paris Wife did I realize that Sun was based on actual events involving Hemingway, Hadley, and a group of friends who traveled to Pamplona together. I don’t know how I would have felt if I had read them in the opposite order; had I read Sun reflecting on how Hemingway was characterizing events and his friends as characters, I might have thought entirely differently about that book. As things stand, I have a deep admiration for Hemingway — both for his writing, and for what he accomplished; he was sort of like a method actor, but as a writer. It seems that all of his stories are based on things that happened in his life, and he purposely put himself in those situations to live the events, thereby being better able to write about them.
And while that is an admirable feat, arguably requiring tremendous courage, you cannot help but start thinking that he was a world-class ***hole. He deliberately sabotaged friendships and played one-upsmanship games with people who went out on a limb for him to help him along, both professionally and personally. It’s hard to like him as a person, although it’s impossible not to be interested in him as a character.
Hadley, on the other hand, demonstrated such strength, devotion, and loyalty, that you cannot question that she is a heroine. And I am happy to have learned that she subsequently remarried and lived a wonderful life with her second husband.
If Hemingway, Paris, the Jazz Age generation, or biographical material interest you, you should read this book. It’s fantastic.