The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Hemingway’s voice has been heard the world over. His persona and perspective reflected from his prolific writings. Now fifty years after his death, Paula McLain has gleaned through facts and whatever that’s true to create the novel The Paris Wife, revealing the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife.

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Hadley’s voice speaks from the shadow. It reflects the thoughts of one who had seen it all from the beginning. Within seven short years, she had witnessed the transformation of a disgruntled journalist into a promising, full-fledged novelist. And she was the one who, after only three months of marriage, sailed with Hemingway to Paris and began her fateful role of the ever supportive and loving companion. How we need to listen to her side of the story.

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There are those who have read The Paris Wife and then want to read more of Hemingway’s works.  For me, after reading the book, I want to read more of Paula McLain’s.  It’s interesting that her MFA is in poetry, and that she has published two volumes of poetry collections before this novel. I wonder if it takes a poet to write prose like this, highly sensitive and nuanced, while surprisingly void of ornaments. I find the no-frills narrative style of McLain’s a bit like Hemingway’s, spare and direct, like his memoir A Moveable Feast. Consider something like this as Hadley recounted her earlier life:

And everything was very good and fine until it wasn’t.

What wasn’t fine is an understatement. It’s ironic that what happened to both Hadley and Ernest was quite similar. A domineering mother and a depressed father whose fate led to suicide by a self-inflicted gun shot wound. We know now that Hemingway himself could not escape such a fateful end himself.

But from the start, it was love at first sight for Hadley and Ernest as they met in a house party in Chicago, after Ernest returned home from the war. He was 21, she 29. A year after they met, on September 3, 1921, they were married.

Hadley’s voice captured me right away from the very beginning. I like her down-to-earth persona, her self-deprecating anecdotes as a simple American gal in Paris among the ‘lost generation’. I like it that she played Rachmaninoff and Chopin and not jazz-savvy. I like her ignorance in fashion and avoidance of the dazzling Parisian glitz and glamour:

 If the women in Paris were peacocks, I was a garden-variety hen.

It’s interesting too reading how other writers advise Ernest. They point to the bare essentials, as Hadley recalls Gertrude Stein saying:

Three sentences about the color of the sky. The sky is the sky and that’s all. Strong declarative sentences, that’s what you do best. Stick to that.”

As Stein spoke Ernest’s face fell for a moment, but then he recovered himself. She’d hit on something he’d recently begun to realize about directness, about stripping language all the way down. “… leave only what’s truly needed.” She’d said.

Or this from Ezra Pound:

Cut everything superfluous… Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t tell readers what to think. Let the action speak for itself.

Hadley was with him all the way. When she was later pregnant, Hadley felt the need to go for better birthing care in Canada to deliver her child. I was amazed to read about such a currently hot issue in their time. They sailed to Canada in September, 1923. One month later, Bumby was born.

They lived on the fourth floor of an apartment on Bathurst Street. And since I’m in Toronto now as I write this review, I’m able to go over there and take these photos for my readers. Currently, the building at 1597-1599 Bathurst Street is a comfortable and elegant looking five-storey apartment aptly named The Hemingway.

A plaque is placed at the entrance to mark this historic site:

It reads:

Ernest Hemingway

American-born Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), internationally renowned author, lived in this apartment building 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, in 1923-24, while working as a journalist for the Toronto Star, where he became friends with novelist Morley Callaghan and writer/broadcaster Gordon Sinclair. He returned to Paris, France, where he began his career as a novelist, producing such masterpiece as “The Sun Also Rises”, “A Farewell To Arms”, & “For Whom The Bell Tolls”

Toronto Historical Board
1985

Ernest had worked for the Toronto Star before, and had developed an amicable working relationship with his boss John Bone. But this time he encountered tumultuous problems with his new boss, causing him to shorten his stay. This is what I found a block away from The Hemingway apartment:

Four months after their son Bumby was born, in January, 1924, the Hemingways sailed back to Paris. Upon seeing Gertrude, Ernest said:

I know we meant to be gone a year, but four months is a year in Canada.

I just can’t help but smile upon reading this. Interpret whatever way you will.

Once back in Paris, Ernest discarded his journalist hat and went all out to pursue his dream of a published writer, encouraged by his mentor Gertrude Stein. He began to be noticed and gain publishing success. And with success came fame, and fame, a different circle of friends, richer, more glamorous and drunk. Within their group of acquaintance, people were falling for each other’s spouses, messy and totally lost.

Hadley began to fall out of it all. One time at a tense exchange among the group, she was so fed up that she had to excuse herself and left early with Don Stewart, their writer friend. And here’s the sentence that leaves such an impression on me:

“Before we’d even gotten to the door, the gap had closed around the table and you couldn’t even tell I’d been there.”

The American journalist for Vogue magazine Pauline Pfeiffer soon became Ernest’s new preoccupation. She had not only won his heart, but Hadley’s trust and friendship. But the balance was bound to tip. Hadley’s innocence was soon shattered by betrayal from both her friend and her husband; her naivety ebbed away as she watched helplessly the painful disintegration of her marriage and small family.

I’d chosen my role as supporter for Ernest, but lately the world had tipped, and my choices had vanished. When Ernest looked around lately, he saw a different kind of life and liked what he saw. The rich had better days and freer nights. They brought the sun with them and made the tides move. Pauline was a new model of woman and why couldn’t he have her…

When I think back on Hemingway’s memoir of those Paris years, A Moveable Feast, in which he writes about his early love with Hadley, I can’t help but feel for both of them. How can we command our own feelings, passion, love? The bull fighting scenes in Pamplona which mesmerized Ernest so had become such an apt metaphor… the bulls charging madly through the narrow streets towards the ring, aroused by a mere spot of red, driven by brute instincts and raw impulses, yet all come to the same gory end in the ring.

In the book, McLain has their writer friend Don Stewart declared:

I can take the bulls and the blood. It’s this human business that turns my stomach.

You might ask: “But is this all true?” After all, this is only a novel. From his notes on A Moveable Feast, Hemingway stated that all was fiction. Conversely, in McLain’s The Paris Wife, she has this quote from Hemingway:

 There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.

Looks like it’s for us readers to pick and choose.

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~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, published by Bond Street Books, Random House, 2011, 314 pages.

You might like to read my review of:

A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway.

Midnight In Paris, a film by Woody Allen.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

11 thoughts on “The Paris Wife by Paula McLain”

  1. What a wonderful review, Arti! I own a copy of this book and am looking forward very much to reading it (others keep getting in the way!). I have read up on some of Hemingway’s biography in the past, and it seemed to me that his life was very prone to being mythologised. He had these things happen – from his difficult childhood on – that sound like they come out of novels in the first place. But I’ve always felt that the truth of Hemingway is much harder to reach. The difference between his cool, spare prose and the hot mess of his emotional life always intrigues me. I’d like to know more about him, and I’d also love to know how much Paula McLain ‘fictionalised’ what happened between him and Hadley.

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    litlove,

    Yes, the Sun Also Rises comes right out of his experience with his group of friends in Pamplona, Spain. McLain also uses that episode to bring out Hadley’s disappointment that Ernest didn’t write her in the story, while all her other friends got their mentions. Anyway, I agree with your point that the line between what’s true and what’s fiction seems to be blurry. But I read somewhere that McLain has tried her best to make sure she has all the facts and ‘truths’ from archives, letters, and A Moveable Feast.

    Arti

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  2. Lovely, thoughtful review. This novel has certainly captured the imagination of many, and it is always so good to read the other side of such a story. And love the Toronto pix. Thank you. Suzi

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    Suzi,

    Thanks for visiting and leaving your comment. Glad you like the pics. Also, appreciate the mention and retweet. Yes, we do need to hear from both sides… albeit ‘fictional’.

    Arti

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  3. Well, I’m thrilled you reviewed this — and that I read it now, not before I read “The Paris Wife” — which I just finished over Labor Day. I was going to write about it on Chopsticks (I haven’t done a book post on my book blog for so long, people will forget it exists!), but I think instead I’ll just write a couple of notes and observations and send them over to you! You really nailed it and all my thoughts about the book in every way. And then to illustrate it so well and pull such great quotes — well, I would be embarrassed to say more! But I did so enjoy the book, and yes — I want to read more McLain, too. I recently heard that she had her own somewhat traumatic past — can’t remember if it was childhood or marriage-related, but I can’t help but think that can offer great insight into her understanding Hadley. What a fascinating woman. I wonder how many of us might have been Hadleys in that time — and how times have changed. I think.

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    jeanie,

    Thanks for your kind words. I think McLain has done a marvellous job in depicting the internal psyche of Hadley’s, as well showing the struggles of Ernest’s. My heart goes out to Hadley fully, especially when we think of their marriage as a power relation… when one is being noticed and praised, while the other just lives under his shadow, looking after his child. I haven’t read a lot about McLain’s background. But what you’ve mentioned just piqued my interest. I just might do some research on her. Thanks for your input.

    Arti

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  4. Brilliant review, Arti! I agree with Jeanie–you truly nailed this book, and in a most eloquent and insightful way. I’m glad you stressed the similarities of Hadley and Ernest’s tragic childhoods. Part of the magnetism for both, I suspect. What fun to be in Toronto reading this book, and finding the place that they lived for the four months that felt like a year 😉

    So difficult to separate Hemingway the man from Hemingway the myth, yet there was Hadley with her long skirts and sensible shoes, her James and her Rachmaninoff–the ballast. She may have been old-fashioned, even dowdy but she knew who she was and that saved her, in the end. I liked her, too. Thank you.

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    ds,

    Really appreciate your kind words. You know, Hadley is the best spokesperson for Canada’s health care system 🙂 Here’s the direct quote from McLain’s book: “…I did believe coming to very cold and lonely Toronto would be worth it once our baby was born healthy and well…” Compared to Paris, she had full confidence in the birthing care she could get in Canada. The main issue of course was Ernest’s problem with his boss who sent him out of town often and one time to the zoo to cover the birth of a white peacock.

    “She may have been old-fashioned, even dowdy but she knew who she was and that saved her, in the end.” This is so true. From real life accounts her second marriage to journalist Paul Mowrer was a happy one. For that Hemingway’s burden was lifted some what.

    Arti

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  5. A wonderful review. I appreciate direct and simple writing, and I appreciate Hadley’s personality too. Even though I post fashions from the shows in New York, I don’t wear ’em, I’m simple like her. And that scene she left, where the table closed back as if she had not been there is profoundly sad.

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    Ruth,

    O Ruth, even though I haven’t met you, I’ve grown to know you through your poetry and writing these past years from your blog. I’ve appreciated your unique aesthetics regarding fashion… “wearable art, poetry in motion”, and not the glitz and glamor. I think Hadley would have liked that kind of an approach too. With respect to her inner turmoil, McLain’s description is incisive and nuanced, the mark of a poet. And I think she’d love to live on a farm like yours. This is a book that I think you’ll enjoy.

    Arti

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  6. Well. Thanks to your post, I spent the good part of an hour reading about Hemingway and reacquainting myself with his works. How handy that you had a Hemingway landmark nearby. McLain sounds like an intriguing writer.

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    nikkipolani,

    Yes, I’m really thrilled to have found it. Of course this present apt. is a newer bldg., but the address is the exact location.

    Arti

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  7. This sounds like a really good book and how cool to have read it so soon after Moveable Feast. Also, really awesome that you were in Toronto and could stop by the apartment building! Nice write-up Arti. I’m adding the book to my TBR list!

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    Stefanie,

    I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Like the two sides of a coin, this reads like the other side of A Moveable Feast. I’m glad someone takes up the task to voice out for Hadley.

    Arti

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  8. First, this is a wonderful review. It captures so well both the hopefulness and poignancy of Hemingway’s relationship with Hadley. I really enjoyed reading it.

    It also made me aware that, if we were playing a word association game and someone said “Hemingway”, my first response wouldn’t be Paris, but Key West. When I think of Hemingway, I always think of Key West, Cuba and Spain – perhaps Africa. But not Paris, and not Europe.

    You sent me off on an exploration that raised more questions than answers. One of Hemingway’s biographers claimed that his failed relationship with Agnes von Kurowsky, a Red Cross nurse with whom he was involved prior to his marriage to Hadley, was the reason for his serial marriages – he preferred to “dump”, rather than to be dumped.

    But I wonder. Hadley was associated with Paris. But in Paris, he also met Pauline Pfieffer, and eventually they moved on to Key West. In Key West, he met Martha Gellhorn, and their life was lived in great part in Spain and Cuba. Back in London and alone, he met correspondent Mary Welsh, and they proceeded to live a life in England and Europe – traveling to Venice, where he fell love with Adriana Ivancich. Mercifully, he didn’t marry her!

    Looking over the whole sweep of this history, I have a sense of Hemingway as a man constantly re-inventing himself, moving from one stage set to another and re-casting his personal drama as he traveled. I even have a suspicion that his writing could be examined through that set of lenses. But that’s just conjecture at this point. What I do believe is that Hemingway was absolutely serious when he said, “It’s all true”.

    Thanks for giving me a fuller grasp of Hemingway’s history, and a greater appreciation for someone who’s been so influential in our literature.

    Like

    1. Linda,

      As I always think, my post is only the tiny pebble, the ripples are the exciting part. You sure have gone on some researching regarding Hem’s four wives. I’m no Hem. scholar, so really can’t offer any answer to this, but Paula McLain has done a marvellous job ‘psychoanalyzing’ him… you really should read this to appreciate his inner turmoils. But of course, my heart goes out to Hadley, who is such a faithful and loyal companion, and the mother of his first child. And McLain has given her a voice that is genuine and sincere. It’s ironic that she’s called The Paris Wife because she’s nothing ‘Parisian’. And it’s because of her naivety and idealism that she followed him to Paris. It’s sad that after marrying Pauline P. Hem moved back to America right away, as if it was Hadley’s idea to go to Paris in the first place. No matter, Paris left an indelible mark on Hem, giving rise to his equating it with “a moveable feast”.

      I must also point out that, it all began with my watching the film “Midnight In Paris” that I started to have the interest to delve into more Hem. If you have the chance, do go and see it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

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  9. I just requested the audio version of this, and I’m glad I did! It’s good to hear that you enjoyed it so much. I actually had no idea what it’s about, so I’m happy to know more of what to expect. Hemingway is a fascinating figure, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about his circle.

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    Rebecca,

    It must be a different experience hearing the book read out. I hope the audio version is as nuanced as the literary. Curious to know what your opinion of it after you’re done.

    Arti

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