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The Paris Wife (Paula McLain) - Review

The Paris Wife

Review by Louise Carleton

THERE’S not much left to say about Ernest Hemingway, on either his work or his private life. Hemingway’s macho persona, his womanising, excessive drinking and love of blood sports is well documented and almost as impressive as the masterpieces he produced.

Yet in The Paris Wife, Paula McLain takes a look at what it would be like to be married to such a force. Even with the prior knowledge of the drunken fighter that Hemingway is more often than not remembered as, it’s still hard to like him or make excuses for him after reading McLain’s beautifully executed and tragic novel.

McLain takes us back to the man before he found his literary voice, before the name was known throughout the world; all told through the eyes of his demure first wife, Hadley Richardson.

Richardson was, by her own admission, homely and quiet. Bought up in a stifling household with her overbearing mother and sister (her father committed suicide when she was young) it wasn’t until the death of her mother, when Hadley was 28, that she was finally allowed to break free and enjoy a brief taste of happiness.

It was on a trip to Chicago that she met the charismatic 21-year-old Hemingway who was just cutting his teeth as a writer.

McLain takes us from their whirlwind courtship to their married life in Paris, which was so influential in creating the sharp and masculine style instantly recognised as Hemingway’s.

Through Hadley we are not only exposed to the beginnings of their then loving relationship, but also a sensitive man struggling to make sense of the horrors he witnessed during the war… a man who desired constant praise and reassurance from his doting wife, a woman who gave everything in return.

The book reads like a who’s who of the 1920s Parisian art scene. McLain introduces the Fitzgeralds, Getrude Stein and Ezra Pound amongst others. She creates an observant and likeable Hadley and a true and absolute Hemingway as well as evoking vividly the landscapes they inhabited.

The book travels from the streets of Paris to the noisy bullfights of Pamplona, dropping in on Hadley and Hemingway as they ski and hike in Switzerland and holiday on the French Riviera and at Pound’s Italian villa. At each point we can taste the Absinthe and hear the chatter from the cafes.

McLain’s novel has been painstakingly researched and while she takes some artistic license when it comes to portraying exact feelings, the bones are there as the author consulted volumes of letters and original manuscripts in order to really get under the skin of her characters and find out who they really were.

The result is exciting, as we watch the meteoric rise of this literary giant, as well as poignant and moving too. We feel Hadley’s aching pain as she learns of Hemingway’s affair with the beautiful Pauline Pfeiffer, who went on to become his second of four wives.

Like Hemingway’s own memoirs that no doubt inspired this book, it can be said that McLain’s The Paris Wife is most definitely A Moveable Feast.