The Paris Wife – Book Review

 Hadley and Ernest Hemingway in Chamby, Switzerland, 1922. Photograph: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The Paris Wife captures the early life and career of Ernest Hemingway, as seen through the eyes of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Taking place in the early 1920’s, we get a glimpse into the troubled mind of one of America’s most tormented authors, just as he is coming into his own as a literary icon.

Ernest Hemingway had two great passions in his life: women and writing. His was the burning, bubbling, uncontainable desire to captivate audiences both through his women and on paper. When we first meet him in The Paris Wife, he is a 21 year old World War I vet, pacing the floors and spilling new ideas with every breath. His internal friction penetrates the pages explosively, as he claws his way to the forefront of the storyline.

Hadley Richardson, a 28 year old Midwestern girl, had just lost both of her parents and was living with her sister’s family in St. Louis. Her family hovered over her, locking her into a fragile state that she detested, leaving her yearning and ready to live her life. The gentle tugging from the outside world led her to visit a childhood friend in Chicago for a few weeks – a decision that ultimately would change her life.

During her stay, Hadley is introduced to Ernest through mutual friends and the attraction is instant. We read of long walks in the Chicago streets and compelling conversations that satisfy the discontent that had been building in Hadley’s mind since her mother’s death. She says of Ernest, “I’d never met anyone so vibrant or alive. He moved like light. He never stopped moving – or thinking, or dreaming apparently.”

The vacation could not last forever and Hadley had to return to St. Louis. Crumpled letters, intense and deliberate, came regularly from Ernest, and their relationship thrived. She needed to see him again and traveled once more to Chicago, where their love was solidified through the promise of marriage. After they were married, Hadley and Hem struggled in Chicago, waiting for the break that would enable Ernest to take the next step professionally. When Hadley’s uncle passed away and left her a large sum of money, the Hemingways made their way to Paris after hearing endlessly of the intellectual revolution taking place in the Left Bank and in the cafes of Montarnasse.

And so begins The Paris Wife.

In Paris the romance grows deeper. Poor and struggling, their deep affection for one another is palpable. Everyone they encounter remarked on their level of intimacy, rooting for their survival. Hadley’s steadfast support of Hem is the channel to their connectivity, the dynamic that established their relationship even initially. Hem loved that she encouraged his writing and rather than trying to compete with his passion, respected the necessary balance between his two worlds. Both were oblivious to the imminent threat of what should happen if the scales be tipped, displacing what seemed to be the one conditional aspect of their love.

Hadley is adored by everyone, but wouldn’t succumb to the modern trends of the time, including everything from fashion to free love. She is witty and direct, but humble and thoughtful. While not a pushover, she did build her life around supporting Ernest as a writer, ultimately paving the way for who he would become. Their time in Paris set the stage for his future in literature, as the couple surrounded themselves with the most influential characters of the artistic world. Readers are introduced to Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound as friends and confidants of the Hemingways.As Ernest builds his reputation as a writer, maintaining the balance of his career and mutual respect for his wife, becomes harder than ever. Amidst affairs, drama, and a couple who seems to epitomize true love, we learn of the disintegration of a marriage in a time where all of the rules were changing.

Author Paula McLain eloquently weaves her own imagination with historical non-fiction, painting a picture of a woman trapped in love during a period of fantastic advancement in the artistic community.  McLain easily depicts an era where the world, still reeling from the first Great War, rebelled against following the rules, choosing a freer way of life, regardless of the consequences. Drawing from both historical resources and Hemingway’s writing alike, McLain does a terrific job of bringing readers back to the early days in the Left Bank, through the eyes of a woman in history who is gone, but not completely forgotten.

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