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"The Paris Wife" tells the story of the doomed romance between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. Hedley meets him when he is only 21 and although believing strongly in his ability to write, he is struggling to find the recognition he feels he deserves. She falls head over heels with the young novelist and after a whirlwind romance they are married.
Although deeply in love their romance is challenged by a series of obstacles. Hemingway is still traumatised by his experiences in the war. As a flawed genius he sometimes puts Hadley well below his work as his need to write is all-encompassing. They initially have very little money to live on so he has to go away to work. Then Hadley becomes pregnant, a change that Hemingway does not feel ready for. And this before the biggest challenge of all to their marriage...
The research to this book has undoubtedly been done well. The stories of times spent with so many greats of the era; Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound to name a few are intriguing and the descriptions of Paris in the 1920s really captures the imagination. In addition the romance is really believable.
However, as a modern girl I did find myself wishing that Hadley would develop a backbone! Hemingway acted appallingly at times and she just let him get away with it.
Although I enjoyed this book it would not make it into my top ten. It failed two of my tests that I use to judge a book. 1. On returning from holiday halfway through I did not pick it up for another week and a half (for someone who on many occasions carries on reading when I can barely keep my eyes open this is a real indicator of how much I have enjoyed it). 2. Once finished I would not imagine it will be a book I would read again.
About the book
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain was published by Virago on 5th January 2012 and the book is 400 pages long.
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness--until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group--the fabled "Lost Generation"--that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill-prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage--a deception that will lead to the unravelling of everything they've fought so hard for.
What I thought
Having a massive thing about books set in Paris or about Paris, when I saw this one at the train station I just knew I had to have it although having not heard of it before so I didn't know quite what to expect.
The Paris Wife is pretty much a fictionalised retelling of Hemingway's life with his first wife, Hadley. The book begins in Chicago in the '20s where the couple meet and is told from Hadley's perspective. She was a strange character to me to begin with as her personality is a bit mixed. Although she comes across as strong and independent, due to things happening beforehand, she also seems very timid and not altogether sure of herself. Meeting Hemingway brings out a different side to her and I saw her character change really quickly. As the book goes on, she changes more and more, becomes quite the doormat. I think her backbone went missing somewhere in-between Chicago and Paris.
Obviously, as a book about Hemingway's first wife, he does feature a lot throughout the book. I'm not altogether sure whether or not this was the author's intent but I actually quite hated him. Yes, he was nice to begin with in the relationship but it didn't take long for me to see him for the arse of a man that he was. In this depiction of their life, Hemingway is rude, insensitive and extremely selfish. While these traits were written exceptionally, deep down I was hoping for him to have some nice qualities hidden in there somewhere but that just didn't happen.
I'll be honest and admit that I did only really get this book because of the title and I was disappointed when I realised how much of the book is not set in Paris. It takes a long time for Hadley and Ernest to make the move but once they did, it was quite something. McLain is obviously passionate about Paris herself and puts a lot of effort and detail into describing the city which was something I was extremely thankful for. Paris is a big a part of the story at certain points as the characters themselves and it was wonderful to see it intertwined with the plot so well.
The plot moves effortlessly over the life of Hadley and Ernest with the addition of some wonderful characters that break up the monotony of their boring life together. Characters like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound make the story a lot more interesting than if it had been solely about the Hemmingway's. Each of these fantastic characters make the book a lot more interesting and exciting and throw in some much needed distractions from what would have been quite a plain and boring story otherwise. It was great to see other writers interact with Hemingway and to see how they all saw each other and what they may have thought of each other's works.
While I did really enjoy this book, I don't think it is for everyone. I loved reading about different parts of the world and people from the past but I wanted to slap both Hadley and Ernest for making such stupid decision and for being such annoying people. The Paris Wife is a bit of a mixed bag for me overall.
The Paris Wife is an intriguing look at the life of a literary legend from a different perspective, a novel in which Ernest Hemingway's first wife tells us her version of their marriage, and their life in 1920s Paris, including encounters with other American expat writers.
I was attracted to this novel by hearing an abridged serialisation on the radio - the confiding intimacy of the first person narrative worked really well in this form, as does the selection of dramatic incidents and turning points in their relationship.
This novel worked well as a piece of storytelling - it must be 3 times the length of Hemingway's own account of that period of his life in A Moveable Feast, a memoir in the form of a series of vignettes. McLain acknowledges that she drew on the memoir, which I read afterwards for comparison, and I did recognise a lot of the events Hadley describes.
I think it is quite a challenge to write fiction based on real people's lives - do you write about your "characters" as you believe they were or as you would have liked them to be? Hemingway's Hadley sounds too good to be true, (he described her as too good for him), but by telling her story in this way, McLain makes her sound a bit more real and less saintly, and this actually makes her more likeable. At times I felt she was rather too willing to sublimate her needs to his, but this seems quite realistic in the context of the time. She spends a lot of the novel seeming rather passive, even dull, but then we get glimpses of someone rather more assertive and prepared to stand up for herself - in the end, when put in an impossible situation, it is Hadley who has the strength to make another life changing decision for herself and her son. Her love for him also doesn't stop her voicing her opinions of his writing when needed, when he writes a book satirising a friend's work and Hadley tells him how wrong he is to even think of trying to publish it.
From Hemingway's account we know that Hadley was an enthusiastic reader, who particularly liked the work of Henry James and compared other work to his, not always favourably. I think McLain misses an opportunity to make Hadley more interesting by mentioning Hadley reading frequently but not what she is reading - this is something I want to know about fictional (or real) bookworms in books.
The portrait of Hemingway in The Paris Wife is also interesting - his public image is often based on him in late middle age - here he is in his early 20s. We see him at his best and most romantic at the beginning of the novel, and becoming increasingly selfish and dishonest later - like his wife, we see his more appealing, sweet side, and also some of the damage that has been done to him by his wartime experiences, and as things go wrong, we also see his more obnoxious side.
Other characters in the novel are less well drawn, apart from the predatory Pauline. Some of the other writers don't emerge beyond being names on the page, and McLain doesn't add much to the descriptions of these people than what is mentioned in A Moveable Feast.
I was also struck by the fact that a novel set largely in Paris gives little feel for the city or its native residents. This reflects the memoir, perhaps, in which Hemingway describes hanging out with other expats and English speaking writers the whole time, but it was another area in which I thought McLain could have actually made up and embellished Hadley as a character.
The Paris Wife made me want to read/reread some of the work of Hemingway and perhaps of the other writers mentioned. (I'd love to read more about Hadley but most of the books about her are too difficult/expensive to get hold of).
Overall, this novel has some faults and frustrations but I thought it was a great, page-turning read.
I received a free copy of this book through the Amazon Vine programme and this review has previously appeared at Amazon and at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Publisher: Virago March 2011
Format: Hardback 390 pages
ISBN: 978 1 84408 666 5