The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

This is the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their lives together, especially the time they spent in the American ex-patriate community in Europe. It’s a fictionalization, not a biography, but sticks to the basic facts of what really happened.

The most interesting part of the book was the descriptions of the couple’s life in Paris and the relationships they had with other famous writers, like Fitzgerald, Pound, Sherwood Anderson, and Gertrude Stein. The accounts of how and when Hemingway wrote some of his early books and stories made me want to go read them and see if I could catch the references that this book made in them.

My biggest reactions to the book were mostly about how poorly Hem treated Hadley. Insecure and ego-hungry, he can’t take any criticism from her and prefers the sycophantic praise of another woman. I hated how Hemingway has all the power in the relationship, and Hadley is complicit in that. When they talk about their problems it’s always in terms of how “we” went wrong, not how he singlehandedly ruined everything. The marriage ends when he has an affair with a mutual friend, who became Mrs. H #2 (of 4). When Hadley finds out about the affair, he’s angry with her, as if she’s the one who’s done wrong. There is a period of time in which the couple, their child, and the mistress are living in a hotel suite together, and you can imagine how uncomfortable that situation is for the wife. In the novel, McLain portrays Hemingway and his mistress having sex, while Hadley is half-asleep in the same bed. One of the best metaphors of the book explains pretty well how that lack of boundaries led to the dissolution of the marriage:

Ernest once told me that the word paradise was a Persian word that meant “walled garden.” I knew then that he understood how necessary the promises we made to each other were to our happiness. You couldn’t have real freedom unless you knew where the walls were and tended them. We could lean on the walls because they existed; they existed because we leaned on them. With Pauline’s coming, everything had begun to tumble. Nothing at all seemed permanent to me now except what was already behind me, what we’d already done and lived together.

Hadley is undoubtedly portrayed here as very strong, enduring great pain and turmoil. It seems that part of her strength is knowing when to give up. The final letters that end the marriage are loving and respectful of the bond they did share. She says that she has grown and changed and become stronger, and it seems true. I’m slightly wary of a woman growing thanks to the pain a man puts her through; her deepened character does not justify his actions. I feel ambivalent about it, but that’s not a bad reaction to have to a book.

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