Friday, June 24, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

“I wished I had died before I loved anyone but [Hadley].”
~Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast 

This is a gem of a book. The Paris Wife, a fictionalized account of the first of Hemingway's four wives, Hadley Richardson, is written primarily from her perspective.  Why is Hadley the Paris wife?  She & Hemingway moved to Paris together in the early 1920s, & most of the time Hemingway spent in Paris was with Hadley & their son, "Bumby".  (Hadley & Ernest-or Hash & Nesto, or Tatie, or Tiny-were crazy about nicknames.) They were married for six years.

The story begins with their meeting in 1920 & ends with Hemingway's death in 1961, although after Hadley & Ernest divorced in 1927, they met only once.  Paula McLain seems to really have gotten under the skin of Hadley-a portrait she bases on sources such as A Moveable Feast & Bernice Kert's The Hemingway Women. I found myself drawn to the character of Hadley right away. The prose is beautiful ("My life was my life; I would have to stare it down, somehow, & make it work for me" was one of my favorite lines) & the details of Hadley's early life, her meeting with Hemingway, & her reaction to his death are very moving.

If the story of the Hemingway marriage isn't gripping enough for you, there is quite a cast of supporting players: Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas; Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald; Gerald & Sara Murphy. All are very realistically portrayed, & woven into the fabric of the story in a very natural way. The hard drinking & fast living lifestyles of these Jazz Age characters is brought vividly to life.

The Paris Wife is an intense, compelling read, even for-or perhaps especially for-those who know how the story will end.  Whether or not you are familiar with Hemingway's life, you will enjoy this delightful portrait & finely crafted tribute.  You will not want to put it down-I didn't! 

To read an interview with Paula McLain, visit The Hemingway Project website.

For more books about Hemingway ex-wives & family, consider Caroline Moorehead's Gellhorn: A Twentieth Century Life, about the journalist who was Hemingway's third wife, & Running with The Bulls: My Years with the Hemingways, written by Valerie Hemingway, Ernest's secretary & the wife of his youngest son.

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