Readers, I have a confession: I have never read any Hemingway. Not a page of The Sun Also Rises. Not a sentence of The Old Man and the Sea.
Before you judge me, and deem me a bad librarian, let me just say this: Ernest was not required reading, either in high school or college, and who has time for things if they aren’t assigned in those busy times? And, once school was over, I felt like I didn’t need to read Hemingway – I’d heard enough about his books to feel like I already had. Plus, I’d heard he was a real jerk.
Then The Paris Wife came out – and everyone loved it – so I thought I should give it a try. And I have another confession: I loved it, too.
Hadley Richardson, the titular Paris wife, was Hemingway’s first wife, and she narrates Paula McLain’s fictional recreation of their tumultuous years together. The Hadley we meet in the book’s first pages is not the woman we would picture with the Ernest Hemingway we know. McLain’s Hadley is a self-described “Victorian,” unfashionable, spinsterish woman of 27. Her Hemingway, too, cuts an unfamiliar figure – only 21 when they meet, he is needy, unsure, and eager, his writing career barely started.
After their marriage, the two leave for Paris as quickly as they can manage. It’s here the book really comes into its own – and the name dropping begins. The Hemingways associated with a veritable “who’s who” of arts and literature of the day, as anyone who saw Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris can attest. The Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and on and on.
Though these interactions are entertaining (like playing literary bingo), they are incidental to the love story of Hadley and Ernest. Seen through Hadley’s eyes, it is at once wildly romantic and bleakly tragic – peppered with reminders that it will not last. Throughout their time in Paris, Hadley never quite manages to adapt, never quite feels she belongs. But Ernest changes, becomes more arrogant, assured, and worldly, and their marriage begins to strain, and eventually falls apart.
Despite knowing their sad end, McClain manages to avoid too much sentimentality. You cannot pity Hadley – she is simply too strong and dignified. At the same time, you cannot hate Ernest for his treatment of her. He did love Hadley, deeply; in fact he famously said “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” McClain is able to convey the complexities of a real relationship with no heroes or villains – a remarkable feat, making this well worth reading.
It even makes me want to read more. Maybe I’ll have to give Hemingway a try after all.
About the Author
Diana Platt is a reference librarian at the Plaza Branch and leader of the Barista's Book Group.