I’m on the fence about Paula McLain’s bestselling new novel The Paris Wife. On the plus side, the subject matter was fascinating. McLain’s novel is the fictional memoir of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Because Hemingway himself documented this time period so assiduously in The Sun Also Rises and later in A Moveable Feast, it seemed at times that McLain merely had to add the dialogue to make the story come alive. With all of these great sources to work with, however, comes the stark revelation that the characters of the novel were not really characters at all; instead, they revealed themselves to be deeply flawed human beings. Because of this, I struggled to sympathize with anyone in this otherwise enjoyable historical novel.
In college, my Survey of American Literature Post-1870 class was by far my favorite. It was in this class that I learned to love the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and other luminaries of the Lost Generation. Therefore, to read a novel rich with images of Jazz Age Paris like the Closerie des Lilas—the famous café in which Hemingway did much of his writing—and the Dingo Bar—an oft-mentioned nightclub frequented by the Hemingways’ smart set—was a treat I was happy to indulge in.
Unfortunately, however, while I can appreciate what I think McLain aimed to do with The Paris Wife—add depth to a woman history has reduced to “Hemingway’s Paris Wife”—McLain ultimately proves Hadley to be a woman who embraced convention despite being married to a man famous for rejecting it. For all of the melodramatic musings about the “great love” that existed between Ernest and Hadley, it seemed clear to me that the fact that the marriage lasted a brief five years should serve as a testament to the poor match that it was. Hadley, however, wanted her marriage to last and went to great and desperate lengths to ensure that it did (I’m referring to the absurd “one hundred day challenge” here!). Unfortunately, Hadley’s desperation drags on a little too long and by the end, I couldn’t help but feel glad to be rid of the protagonist I originally wanted to root for.
While the premise of The Paris Wife is alluring, Hadley’s character development ultimately left me feeling frustrated with the novel. With that said, The Paris Wife is still worth a look for fans of Hemingway and the other famous artists of the Lost Generation.