The Paris Wife

  • Paula McLain
  • Ballantine/Random House
  • 314 pp.

A poignant evocation of Paris in the 1920s and the Lost Generation through the eyes of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley ― his “Paris wife.”

Reviewed by Andrew Imbrie Dayton

In presenting this fictional biography of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, Paula McLain promises a vivid tableau of Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920s. That she delivers so poignantly and evocatively testifies as much to dramatic and linguistic skills as to her psychological insight.

Not since Ragtime has a novel been so deliciously slick. From the get-go, things start moving in earnest when spinsterish, slightly tipsy Hadley transfixes the brash, young ambulance driver-cum-journalist veteran by playing Rachmaninoff to a young audience of jazz-loving friends in Chicago. Within moments Hadley and the future great novelist are trading banter and dancing close, as Hadley muses: “I close my eyes and lean into Ernest, smelling bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cotton ― and everything about this moment is so sharp and lovely, I do something completely out of character and just let myself have it.” There it is: larger than life, Ernest Hemingway has just stalked onstage and stolen the show, behaving in art as he did in life.

McLain then deftly sidesteps the trap of mere glitz, shifting the narrative to the tragic deaths of Hadley’s parents ― her father’s eerily foreshadowing her future husband’s ― and on to Hadley’s self-doubt and soul-searching over the whirlwind courtship. Despite a slightly jarring (and fortunately brief) shift in point of view to portray Hemingway’s own early self-doubts (elsewhere more piercingly portrayed through Hadley’s perspective), the narrative moves quickly on to the pièce de résistance, Paris. Here they navigate together the romantic postwar world of the Lost Generation, featuring cameo appearances by, among others, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Lincoln Steffens, Ford Madox Ford and eventually Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as Ernest and Hadley rise from obscurity, to become the toast of the literati.

There are the dingy cafés and squalid apartments of the early years, the raucous parties and the omnipresent promiscuity of the expatriate community, breathtaking Alpine ski trips, the running of the bulls in Pamplona and, finally, elegant stays on the Riviera, as the narrative power becomes Ernest’s transition from insecure wannabe to jealous arrivé, from protégé and lover to betrayer and philanderer. His wandering eyes ultimately settle on Pauline Pfeiffer, a mutual friend of his and Hadley’s, leading to a bizarre and compellingly portrayed period of the three of them living together.

McLain touchingly captures Hadley’s dilemma: “On the crushed rock path along the windward side of the hotel, three bicycles stood on their stands. If you looked at the bicycles one way, they looked very solid, like sculpture, with afternoon light glinting cleanly off the chrome handlebars ― one, two, three, all in a row. If you looked at them another way, you could see just how thin each kickstand was under the weight of the heavy frame, and how they were poised to fall like dominoes or the skeletons of elephants or like love itself. But when I noticed this, I kept it to myself because that, too, was part of the unwritten contract. Everything could be snarled all to hell under the surface as long as you didn’t let it crack through and didn’t speak its name …”

The master himself couldn’t have said it better, which highlights a strength of McLain’s novel: the language and tone are so much like a feminine version of Ernest Hemingway’s, it deserves to sit up there on the mantel beside his work, a delightful companion piece to A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.

There are very few missteps in The Paris Wife. Of the handful of very brief divertissements in Ernest’s point of view, only two were memorably compelling (Ernest at war, Ernest contemplating his own demise), the rest somewhat awkward. And it might have been a bigger book had it examined more of Hadley’s irrational failings, whatever they might have been. As portrayed, she’s only reticent, shy and decidedly frumpy. Her worst transgressions seem to have been allowing a lone, chaste, extramarital kiss, losing a precious trunk full of her husband’s work and being a homebody. Too many of the husband-wife fights lack the irrational dissonance of true marital discord ― particularly given who the husband was.

Nevertheless, if you long to dip your toe once again into the waters of the Lost Generation, if you’ve read everything Hemingway and yearn for another fix, this is just the ticket.

Andrew Imbrie Dayton is a coauthor of the novel The House That War Minister Built (Octavio Books, September 2011). He lives and writes in the Washington, D.C., area.

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