Book Club Review: The Paris Wife

First, let me say Happy Thanksgiving a million years late! I hope you and yours had a happy and delicious holiday.

I spent the day with Chris and his very Italian family. It’s always funny to see how others celebrate. While there was more pasta on the table than turkey, there were a lot of similarities too, and we had a really fun time. I managed to take zero pictures, so you get a day after picture of the cats staking out the leftovers.

On to the book… Last month’s book club selection was The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. This was the first book that I hadn’t finished by the time we met for book club, but I’m glad it worked out that way. As of our book club meeting, I was 60% through and not interested enough to finish, but after hearing everyone’s thoughts, I was motivated to read on.

The Paris Wife is written from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. While the book does provide some background into Hadley’s early life, it essentially starts the story when Richardson and Hemingway meet.

After meeting and exchanging months of letters, the two wed with the intention of moving to Italy. At the last minute, Hemingway is informed by a contemporary that Paris is actually the place to be, so that’s where they go.

The book is peppered with nods to then starving-artist, now famous contemporaries of Hemingway. Unfortunately, The Lost Generation is not a group I’m familiar with, so I’m sure I missed a lot of references. Some names, like Picasso, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald are impossible to miss, so the book still had it’s period charm.

Hemingway makes it clear that his life is centered around his work, but it’s evident that he loves Hadley. The problem is that he loves her for the man that she makes him and the grounding presence she adds to his life rather than for who she is as a person. Hemingway’s perpetual self-centeredness is immediately apparent.

Still, Hadley seems completely thrilled to be in Paris loving Ernest and allowing his work to take top priority. Although she can’t always understand him, she supports him faithfully. Unfortunately, things begin to go south fairly quickly.

From the beginning, it is evident that Hadley is an exception to the rule in post World War I Paris. She has traditional values and expects a monogamous marriage and a family, which puts her at odds with the free-loving artists in the couple’s social circle. Still, Hadley maintains her sense of self and proves herself willing to try almost anything. Almost.

Hadley tolerates Ernest’s hectic schedule, flighty behavior and almost non existent income but is finally undone by another woman. This isn’t really a spoiler as the book is a work of historical fiction, and a quick Wikipedia reference will show Hemingway married four times in his life, and it doesn’t really come as a surprise in the book either.

Hemingway holds a charm that attracts both men and women, but he is constantly betraying or isolating himself from the people who love and support him. It isn’t surprising that once he finally gets a break (with the release of The Sun Also Risesthat he begins betraying Hadley in the form of an affair with a friend of a friend.

When Hadley learns of the affair and confronts Ernest, he becomes upset with her for bringing the issues to light and for her unwillingness to allow Pauline to become a part of their married life. Yes, he expects his wife to accept his mistress into some plural marriage agreement.

Unsurprisingly, Hadley will not allow it and, after a brief attempt at keeping Hemingway and Pauline apart for 100 days, decides it’s best that she and Ernest divorce.

I lost interest in the book at this point because I felt like the author didn’t do a good job of conveying Hadley’s emotions.  She would mention that Hadley was distraught or miserable, but the narration had the same flat affect throughout the entire book. It felt more like reading a biography of Hadley Richardson than a first person (fictional) account.

However, I found myself really liking Hadley and really disliking Hemingway, so after I learned in book club that Hadley walked away with a much better life ahead of her, I had to finish the book.

It’s true; good things come to Hadley Richardson. While at first, I thought her undying devotion to Hemingway a sign of poor self esteem, my final impression of her was that she was actually pretty fearless. Despite her friends and family, she married and moved to a different country with a struggling writer. Although she was often jarringly different from her peers, she maintained a genuine sense of self and was well liked by those around her. Even while truly in love with Ernest, she had the good sense to end their marriage before things got incredibly ugly.

As my grandparents would say, “she had a good head on her shoulders.” For that reason, the Paris Wife will have you rooting for Hadley Richardson until the end.


2 thoughts on “Book Club Review: The Paris Wife

  1. I’ve been curious to read that book- I see it in every bookstore but I wasn’t actually sure I’d like it. Was great to read your review- I bet I’d have the same opinion

  2. Pingback: November Wrap Up/December Goals « I Broke my Umbrella

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