I just finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It was my Book Club’s choice this month. The Paris Wife is the fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson, told from her point of view. Even if you haven’t read any Hemingway (guilty) you’ve heard the stories and that should make The Paris Wife a compelling and interesting read.
But I just could not connect with Hadley. I tried. I really wanted to have something connect us. I thought at first that there might be, as she discovers her freedom after the death of her mother only to squander it by marrying Ernest. Then I thought maybe Hemingway would treat her like a queen, use her to inspire his work, his wife as muse. But he’s pretty horrible to her and leaves her out of all of his work.
It’s hard to know for sure how much of the story is based on actual events and how much is McLain weaving her own ideas into the narrative but in the novel, Hadley’s mother is a suffragette, working to make the world a better place for a woman to live in, so that she is her own person, no longer defined solely by her husband. And yet? Hadley’s entire existence is wrapped up in her husband. If he isn’t happy, she isn’t happy.
Maybe it’s just my 21st century-ness coming through but I expected more. Why couldn’t Hadley rail against Hemingway’s ill treatment of her? Why didn’t she embrace the life of a 1920s flapper? The inside cover has Hadley and Ernest being some amazing golden couple in 1920s Paris, hobnobbing with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. The Hemingways run off to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, spend months in the German Alps, vacation in the French Riviera and yet it’s all hollow and meaningless.
McLain has used loads of idioms and slang that was most probably de rigeur in the 1920s but in this novel, I felt like it came off forced and fake. There’s just something about all the nicknames everyone has and the way everyone is a “chap” or a “fellow”, even the women, that really bothers me.
I wanted to like it. I tried to like it. But I just didn’t. It didn’t even leave me with any desire to rush out and get my hands on Hemingway’s great works. Normally these kinds of books spark some new interest in a person or a time, but this time I was just relieved to be finished.