Hemingway is a divisive figure in literature. Some people love his style and try hard to emulate his unique way of writing, while others are turned off by the seemingly mundane details included in each chapter. But, whether you love the man or hate the man, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife is a book worth picking up, as it shows an earlier side to the man who would change American literature forever.
Hadley robs the cradle when she marries Ernest, a man eight years younger than her. But, after living a life of coddling and seclusion, and one where she was staring old-maidhood in the face, Hemingway paints a picture of a future filled with adventure and society and excitement. Against the judgment of their families, the two marry and soon decide to move to Paris, where Hemingway can work on his craft in the midst of other artists. While they are portrayed as being deeply in love, I have to admit that the dialog expressing this love tended to be a bit over the top and stereotype-ridden. At one point Hadley says, “Did you ever think it could be like this?” I felt like I had been thrown into the cinematic debut of Nicholas Sparks’ latest romance.
Paris in the 1920s was a place where traditional marriage was no longer looked upon as sacred, at least the Paris of the Hemingway coterie. Within their circle of friends, extra-marital trysts were common and ignored. Apparently, if they were not openly discussed, they were not an issue. The Hemingways fare well for a while, but after the birth of their son, as pressure mounts on Ernest to become the published writer he has always dreamed of being, a woman Hadley considers her friend wedges her way in to their relationship, soon making a mess out of what had been so strong. The book actually begins with Hadley discussing the disintegration of her marriage, so there is no spoiler alert needed in saying that what started as roses and kisses and long letters morphed in to angry words and late-night fights and a parting of ways forever.
Getting an inside look at Hemingway’s early days is fascinating and was enough to have me hooked throughout the length of the novel. There were times where I thought that if the book had not been based upon a writer whom I enjoy reading and had not been as well-researched as it was, I would never have made it through as a simple novel. Hadley as a character is insufferable when it comes to motherhood. I couldn’t believe how many times she left her child with a nanny so that she could go on a ski-vacation in the Alps or attend the running of the bulls in Spain. The worst was when the boy had whopping cough and had to be quarantined, rather than stay with him through the difficult time, she called on the nanny to come and nurse him better so she could go out in the evening for drinks with their group. Maybe that was the norm for their set in Paris in the 20s, but it did not make her a sympathetic character.
While name-dropping is not normally looked upon as a social grace, in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife it is a compelling aspect of the Hemingway-centered narrative. Cameos are made by Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, just to name a few. Reading this book was like watching an ensemble cast movie, with all the top names of the day signing on to a single project. But unlike many of these Hollywood heavy-hitter filled movies where a lot of A-list names aren’t enough to satisfy the viewer, readers of this book walk away intrigued and ready to read more about each character. At times, both Hadley and Hemingway are hard to stomach, and the whole book leaves me feeling a bit more negative towards Hemingway as a person, the book is an entertaining read, both historical and literary points of view. McLain’s The Paris Wife earns: