August 18, 2022

The Book Report: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Before Ernest Hemingway flourished and thrived as a legendary literary author and Pulitzer Prize winner, he was a struggling aspiring writer in Chicago in 1920. When he met the affable and good-natured Hadley Richardson, they began a passionate love affair and had an extraordinary bond that, at the time, was to be forever.

Of course, Hadley could not know then that she was to be the first of four wives for Ernest, and they entered marriage confidently and giddy with happiness. They moved to Paris shortly after they wed. The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is the emotional story of the young couple’s life in the Jazz Age of post-World War I Paris.

Upon arriving in Paris, Ernest dove into the highly social expatriate scene and moved with circles that included influential writers of the time like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald, who served as mentors for Hemingway. He devoted many long arduous hours to writing in the cafés of Paris, while Hadley played the good wife, supporting him in any endeavour.

Her observations, even from the early days of their relationship, give a sense of foreboding. “I would gladly have climbed out of my skin and into his that night, because I believed that was what love meant…It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw of this thinking. I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up…But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.”

Hemingway’s thirst for life and unbridled spirit led him to adventures, experiences and relationships that have served as foundations for his novels. He was a great lover of African big game hunting and Spanish bullfighting. The former journalist and World War I ambulance driver propelled to fame with his early novel The Sun Also Rises, based on their time in Paris.

But Hadley and Ernest’s marriage was not to survive his deception as he began an open and seditious affair with a Vogue writer, Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become his second wife. No reader can help feeling sorry for Hadley as the story unfolds, and her suffering is heartbreakingly accounted in this fantastic novel. Ernest succumbed to fame and got swept away with the high life; perhaps the most tragic thing of all is what he himself wrote about the end of his first marriage in his memoir, A Moveable Feast: “I wished that I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”

Hadley finally reconciled herself to the fact that the marriage was over and they part ways, but always remained connected. “He had four wives altogether and many lovers as well. It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife…We knew what we had and what it meant…there was nothing like those years in Paris, after the war. Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.”

I think Ernest agreed wholeheartedly with Hadley about those days; he closes his memoir with: “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

I can highly recommend both novels, The Paris Wife and A Moveable Feast. My personal copies are marked and highlighted all over!

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