TBTW: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
I know very little about Ernest Hemingway. I haven’t read many of his books, and I certainly haven’t read biographies about him. But after reading The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, I feel like I almost met him. I feel like I lived with him in Paris and I joined him, his wife, and friends on their glorious jaunts around Europe. I feel like I watched him write, watched him live through the pain of losing it all and starting over, watched him push away his closest friends and pull closer to literary genius. But I also feel that maybe, just maybe, the manner in which I met him was a bit disingenuous.
The Paris Wife follows Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first of four wives, as she completes a pan-oceanic romance and life with the famous author. We first meet Hadley as she first meets Ernest, and as we learn about their individual backstories, it becomes tantalizingly clear that this relationship is both perfect and horrible at the same time. As the book progresses through the entirety of their relationship, we live through Hemingway’s torturous process of becoming an established author, and the even more challenging reality of being a budding author’s wife.
The book is a work of fiction colored by truth, or perhaps a work of nonfiction colored by imagination. Either way, McLain’s prose is enticing, if simple, and we easily fall into the life of Hadley, or Tatie, as she is known to her husband. We cherish their tender moments together as Hadley cherishes them, and though we can see it coming chapters before she notices, we weep with Hadley when she realizes her life is falling apart.
It works as a simple book, representing the era, and introducing the readers to the very real characters of 1920’s Paris. (Other ex-pats and authors in the city and the book include Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and F Scott Fitzgerald.) But real life is more complex, and I find it hard to believe that everything happened just so. Did they really grow their hair into the same style, and was it truly intentional? Did Ernest call his first wife mere weeks before he killed himself to shore up a long-dead relationship and simultaneously reignite a still-burning flame?
I find it hard to pick a side on this one. For sheer entertainment, go for it. For factual accuracy in the events, it may as well be an encyclopedia. The problem is that it sometimes reads like an encyclopedia, with a few quotes thrown in to break up the blandness. To be honest, I think that McLain did a great job in accomplishing what she clearly set out to achieve – writing the story of the six year long marriage between Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson from her point of view. And because it offers a new and interesting take on the events, I think this 2012 novel will (justifiably) be around for years to come. But on its purely literary merits, on its elegance and style and quality of prose, I can’t recommend it. None of this kept me from enjoying the book, but looking back on it, I wonder what The Paris Wife could have been in the hands of a more experienced author.