Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife

This is a review that needs some disclaimers. First, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife is a review copy, provided to me by the publisher.

Second, as anyone who has read my review of Geraldine Brooks’s March knows, I’m not a big reader of historical fiction, and was confused and saddened by the way Brooks took famous historical figures and dragged them, kicking and screaming and protesting that the dates just don’t work with the storyline of Little Women, into her novel.

I’m writing this because I want you to know that I started reading The Paris Wife with pretty low expectations. If I didn’t like what Brooks did by inserting words into Thoreau’s mouth, I figured, I really wouldn’t like what McLain was planning to do with Hemingway, a figure who is a sort of godhead in my literary ranking of things.

I was pleasantly surprised by the book. It’s readable and fun and, because McLain is writing about characters who did (documentably) interact with all the famous figures scattered through her novel, not offensive to me in the same way March was.

The Paris Wife centers around Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Richardson was nearing thirty when she married Hemingway, still in his early twenties, in 1921, and for most of their marriage they lived in Paris. The couple divorced in 1926 after Hadley learned of an affair Hemingway was having with Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife.

McLain’s story works because Hadley is an outsider to so much of what Hemingway’s Paris social circle is about. Surrounded by women who drink, smoke, curse, have careers of their own and treat men as things to be tried on and cast off, Hadley views herself as, first and foremost, Hemingway’s wife and supporter. That’s not to say that she’s ambivalent about her role; McLain frequently shows her questioning to what degree she should put up with Hemingway’s devotion to his work, which nearly always comes at her expense. But Hadley becomes sympathetic because she is located so far from the person Hemingway becomes and the sort of people who help him become that way; as one character notes near novel’s end, it’s Hadley who supported Hemingway through the start of his career, but she can’t take him any farther.

The novel is told largely from Hadley’s point of view, in clean prose that can sometimes be heavy on the “-ly” but never strains too hard for emotion. If you are looking for one reason why I prefer McLain’s book to Brook’s March – and I know that the two deal with entirely different subjects and time periods and only loosely fall under the same umbrella of “historical fiction,” but I’m going with what I got – it’s that McLain’s prose at no point made me feel like I was about to drown in a vat of violet-scented water. (And speaking of which, one line I particularly liked: “Bob McAlmon vomited neatly in the flowerbeds of all the best cafes…” [197].)

Hemingway and Hadley in Chamby, Switzerland, 1922

My only complaint against the book comes in the five sections that aren’t told from Hadley’s point of view, but focus exclusively on Hemingway. Usually these chapters are about something that Hadley doesn’t know, or not exactly; so, usually they’re about a woman Hemingway’s been with. But there’s not a real reason for these chapters, not that I can see. That Hemingway had a relationship with Hadley’s friend Kate, if not stated outright, is clear enough from Hadley and Kate’s strained relationship once Hemingway and Hadley become romantically involved. Likewise, there’s no need to flat-out tell the reader, in a special chapter, that Hemingway and Pfeiffer are having an affair, because Hadley suspects enough that the reader can suss it out without additional aid in the form of a chapter that could be titled “How I accidentally slept with my wife’s friend and then kept doing it.” McLain could have cut these sections from the novel and showed more trust in the reader’s ability to piece together what Hemingway is doing while Hadley’s at home with their child.

These five chapters, unevenly scattered throughout the novel, are infrequent enough that they don’t disrupt the narrative flow. The Paris Wife is a fun read, and reminded me that it’s about time I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – his own account (edited and fussed over by descendants and former spouses) of his years in Paris with Hadley.

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I saw this recently on someone else’s blog and I’m intrigued. Glad you hear you enjoyed it – I was on the fence. I figure I have to read A Moveable Feast before I pick this one up, though, so I have the background necessary to appreciate it.

Comment by Kerry

glad you’re thinking of picking it up, like i wrote in my review i was surprised by how much i enjoyed it. one thing i like about the book is that it makes me want to get back to hemingway, who i haven’t read for a while.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] (02/28/11) Yann Martel – Life of Pi (02/22/11) George Orwell – Animal Farm (02/21/11) Paula McLain – The Paris Wife (02/20/11) Howard Jacobson – The Finkler Question (02/18/11) Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, […]

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