Reader’s Choice

“The Paris Wife”
Written by Paula McLain

I’m downright dizzy from the hours I’ve just spent with young Ernest Hemingway and his appealing wife, Hadley, in the apartments and cafés of the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s. It’s exhilarating! One day we’re listening to Gertrude Stein tell Ernest to stick to strong, declarative sentences and another day we’re watching Ernest and Ezra Pound sharing barbs over glasses of absinthe.

Of course, that’s exactly why I picked up Paula McLain’s novel “The Paris Wife” (2011) — to transport myself to the City of Light during the Jazz Age when the most creative young minds were drawn into that melting pot of ideas and innovations. McLain says, “Interesting people were everywhere just then. The cafes of Montparnasse breathed them in and out, French painters and Russian dancers and American writers.”

Hadley Richardson was the first of Hemingway’s four wives and perhaps his least known since she was with him from 1921 to 1926, before his fame. McLain chose to use Hadley’s voice for her novel after reading “A Moveable Feast,” Hemingway’s account of those years where he admitted, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Through Hemingway’s works and the volume of correspondence between the young couple, McLain discovered a young man quite unlike the outspoken, cocky man that most of us are familiar with.

Ernest was just 21 when he met the unmarried 28-year-old St. Louis native in Chicago. At that point he was not a published author but was a strikingly handsome young man with ideas and talent that were being noticed. The two had a brief, long-distance courtship and married in 1921. Hadley was eager to experience a bigger life and enthusiastically sailed to Paris with him that December to start their life together.

In McLain’s capable hands, we see the struggling young writer as a kind, even tender husband who values the warm, playful Hadley. They have little money but an exciting life surrounded by people who take them under their wings. Hadley is aware that she is less stylish, less accomplished than other women in their group, but she understands that he needs someone like her with strong values to anchor his energy, drive and talent.

Although Ernest is angry when Hadley becomes pregnant, the birth of their son, Bumby, seems to cement their relationship, and the threesome alternate time in Paris and Austria. Yet as Ernest’s work gets attention, the accompanying whirlwind of parties and Cote d’Azur vacations with the likes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, eventually unravel the marriage.

The seductive setting of “The Paris Wife” is only a part of its appeal. The writing of Paula McLain is so beautiful and smart that she will have you eagerly follow this couple through the good times and bad.