Anyone a Hemingway fan out there? Personally, I never was. I have read very little of his work in fact, but knew he was married several times and quite the drinker. That did not stop me from becoming invested in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. This book is told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. She tells the story of their meeting, their marriage, and subsequent separation. I expected the book to be more wild, and to depict Hemingway as an awful person considering the conditions of their split, but it turned out to be much more than that.
Hadley Richardson is a fairly naïve and innocent 28 year old woman, a spinster by most standards in 1920. She spent her late teens and early twenties caring for her sick mother and now lives with her married sister. On a brief visit to a friend in Chicago, Hadley’s life changes completely. She meets Ernest Hemingway, an intense 21 year old man who took an interest in her. The two of them continue to correspond after Hadley returns to St. Louis, and through their letters they fall in love. Going against the wishes of most of their friends and family members, the two marry and shortly after move to Paris.
Once in Paris, and thereafter, their lives revolve around Ernest’s work always. The two have an intense love for one another, especially considering their isolation in a new city. To cope with their surroundings, and basically just with life, the two of them do quite a bit of drinking. They are always poor, but together, so Hadley is happy. In Paris, the two interact with big names of the time, including Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. Their social circle is always shifting and changing, filled with eccentric characters and interchangeable partners. The roaring 20s was underway stateside, and in Europe people embraced much of the same values. Free flowing alcohol, fun, and few responsibilities. This world envelopes the two main characters and eventually destroys them. Along the way they travel through Europe, and meet many more influential people as Ernest’s career takes off.
Paula McLain is an excellent writer, and apparently an amazing researcher as well. Her details and facts about the characters and places were impeccable. She filled this book with so much information that I felt I knew everything about them, but it was still very readable. Considering the number of side characters (friends and acquaintances of Ernest’s and Hadley’s) I was rarely overwhelmed and felt I knew each of them well.
The hardest part of the book for me was the period when their marriage was dissolving. It was incredibly sad to see two people who loved one another so much split. I also became quite involved in Hadley’s feelings (another nod to McLain’s style here) and didn’t want her to be hurt.
Anyone can read the Wikipedia page about Ernest Hemingway and/or Hadley Richardson and discover the way their relationship went, so I don’t feel bad telling you about it. Also, even though you can read a biography on either person, this book is still worth reading. McLain recreates a fascinating time in history when artists essentially ruled the social scene in Paris and social rules seemed nonexistent. Few books create such an inclusive world for the reader. A must-read by this librarian’s standards.