Book Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife
Paula McLain
Ballantine Books, November 2012
ISBN 978-0-345-52131-6
Trade Paperback

Hadley Richardson was Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, and McLain does a fine job in this fictional telling of their meeting and marriage. Hadley was a 28-year old naïve and protected young woman, a pianist who had no great desire for a career, living with her sister and brother-in-law since the death of her mother. She meets 21-year old Hemingway in Chicago, where she is visiting friends. The have a whirlwind eleven- month courtship, while Hadley’s friends warn her about the womanizing young journalist.

When Ernest and Hadley marry and move to Paris, they become part of the Lost Generation, and move in the literary circles that include Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, James, Joyce, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Hemingway is self-centered, focused on his writing and likes the pursuit and conquest of women more than the actual relationship. They embrace the hard drinking, free love ways of the Jazz Age in Paris while Ernest works on the novel The Sun Also Rises. He is blind to why Hadley won’t accept his lovers, and is not happy when Hadley announces she is pregnant.

Ernest wrote the book A Moveable Feast about his relationship with Hadley. McLain did not use Hadley’s words from existing correspondence, but her narrative is so compelling that the reader forgets that this is a work of fiction, written from Hadley’s point of view.

This is a story of the couple’s five year marriage, caught up in a swirl of  ambition and betrayal, and was a  New York Times best seller. The author has written a sequel, Love and Ruin, about Hemingway’s third marriage to war correspondent Martha Gelhorn, which came out in 2018.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, July 2020.