The Paris Wife is Paula McLain’s beautifully written nonfiction novel told by Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway. Set in 1920s Paris, Hadley’s story gives readers a deeply imagined version of the American expatriate scene and its most illustrious denizens, including the Buddha-like Gertrude Stein, the squirrelly F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the glamorous Pauline Pfeiffer, and Ernest Hemingway with all his bluster, machismo, insecurity, and artistry.
Hadley was a traditionalist in most ways, at least compared to those with whom she traveled, sported, and drank. As Hadley struggles to hold onto those values while surrounded by fast and frenzied living, we see a woman trying to find equilibrium between the wildness of modern life and the satisfaction of a stable home and family life. As Hadley says, “That’s what terrible, sordid situations did to you, made you act crazily, against your own truths, against your self.”
Although Hemingway’s biography and exploits are well known, they are usually rendered with a biographer’s objectivity. In The Paris Wife, however, we see his Paris years through the eyes of his more reserved partner. This perspective creates a sympathetic Hemingway who is at once charismatic and loutish, sensitive and thoughtless, and simultaneously focused on acts of both literary creation and personal destruction. Through Hadley’s voice, Paula McLain captures the complexity of Ernest Hemingway in language that only one who loved him could use: “The myth he was creating out of his own life was big enough to take it for a time—but under this, I knew he was still lost. That he slept with the light on or couldn’t sleep at all, that he feared death so much he sought it out wherever and however he could. He was such an enigma, really—fine and strong and weak and cruel. An incomparable friend and a son of a bitch. In the end, there wasn’t one thing about him that was truer than the rest. It was all true.”
I highly recommend The Paris Wife for its compelling story of a hot-mess relationship, and for bringing Hadley Richardson into the spotlight. I can easily imagine granddaughter Mariel Hemingway portraying her in a film version.