Book #34

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. Surrounded by beautiful women and competing egos, Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history, pouring all the richness and intensity of his life with Hadley and their circle of friends into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises. Hadley, meanwhile, strives to hold on to her sense of self as the demands of life with Ernest grow costly and her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.

I’ve never read any Hemingway. I’m not sure how this happened, as he’s one of the greats I should have locked myself onto before now, and yet I haven’t. There’s a battered charity shop copy of The Old Man and the Sea somewhere on my shelves, but I’ve never opened it. One day.

The Paris Wife is a fictionalised account of Hemingway’s life after he marries Hadley Richardson. Written from Hadley’s perspective, it’s a commentary on post-war European living, luxury, loneliness, relationships, and the impossibility of living a normal life as a writer.

McLain really seems to know her shit here, and I felt as though she’d researched Hemingway and Hadley’s movements to an obsessive precision. Her descriptions of Paris and the other cities they visited were incredibly vivid, creating a longing for the time and the luxury. She tells us everything - the styles, the food and drink, the dancing, the skiing; we see cameos from Stein, Fitzgerald, Pound, and it all seems terribly romantic and indulgent.

There’s a great deal of commentary here on a writer’s life, their requirements, and for Hemingway, much of these did not lend themselves to being a husband and father. We see fissures begin to appear in his marriage, and the emotions McLain injects into this are perfect. There’s an added delectability here in knowing these events truly did pan out in the 1920s, and that these were real people with their own spirits and passions.

McLain has created something absorbing here, something transportational and dripping in decadence. To see the Lost Generation come together and discuss, write, and love, was truly something else.

“Why is it every other person you meet says they're an artist? A real artist doesn't need to gas on about it, he doesn't have time. He does his work and sweats it out in silence, and no one can help him at all.”