By Joycelin Wong
When you hear the name Ernest Hemingway, his distinct writing style and timeless stories often come to mind. However, it’s more than his prose that engages fans. In Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, readers venture into the Jazz-age in Paris to learn about a slightly less familiar side of Hemingway—his love life.
The novel gives readers a fictional glimpse into the life of Hadley Richardson, the enchanting but unglamorous object of young Hemmingway’s affection. Being his first wife, Richardson shares the toughest years of Hemingway's career as an unknown writer. McLain’s novel also portrays the beauty of life in Paris after the war through literature, art, and romance.
Overall, Richardson narrates what life is like being in the midst of ambitious, famous artists. Being used to a simple life in a small town, Hadley learns to adapt to being the odd one out and living a fast-paced lifestyle in Paris. Readers follow Richardson on a journey, navigating through a group of intellectuals and writers that surround her and Hemingway. Readers can easily relate to Hadley’s struggle to fit in.
The novel also introduces Richardson as a gifted pianist who spent most of her time caring for her ill mother. Her world completely changes after encountering the charming Hemingway at a party in Chicago. She struggled to come to terms with falling for Hemingway because the feeling of love was a mystery to her.
The beginning of the story often reminded me of a cliché romance novel. With
Hemingway in Chicago and Richardson in St. Louis, the two lovebirds wrote back and forth to each other as they began to fall deeply in love. Hadley faced an internal conflict between keeping her guard up and falling for Hemingway, but she ultimately gave in. “I was torn between wanting to know if I could trust Ernest and wishing I could stay blind enough to keep things exactly as they were. His words already meant so much—too much.”
As the story progresses, the happy couple decides to get married and start a future together. The future was unknown to both of them, but Hemingway was eager to start his writing career, and Hadley was eager to join him on the journey.
After meeting the playwright Sherwood Anderson, the idea of a change of scenery came to mind. Anderson says, “Everything’s interesting and everyone has something to contribute. Paris, Hem. Give it some thought.” Paris marked the beginning of their marriage and Hemingway’s writing career.
Allusions to famous writers filled the pages once the couple landed in Paris. Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein just to name a few. I found myself confused as these names often disappeared for a portion of the novel but would then reappear later on. I haven’t been exposed to many of these writers, but the number of characters in this book was a bit overwhelming because their works became the subject of banter between the characters.
As the novel continued, I disliked that Richardson was often looked down on and never taken seriously among Hemingway’s circle. She was always seen as “the wife.” Looking through a feminist lens, Richardson was treated as if she was less than those around her. I often grew a bit annoyed at the fact that Hadley gave up every part of herself in order for Hemingway to grow as a writer. Not only did she give up her dreams, but she also gave up her own identity and began to think that Ernest’s aspirations were her own. “It was as if we’d pressed ourselves together until his bones passed through mine and we were the same person, ever so briefly.” I viewed the Hemingways’ relationship as toxic; however, the cynical individuals around the two viewed them as the golden couple.
McLain often used foreshadowing to hint at what was about to happen throughout the story. One moment Hadley sees a baby and the next moment she’s pregnant. The birth of their son marked the end of the Hemingways’ love and the moment Richardson’s life began to unravel. Hemingway spent most of his time writing somewhere secluded from everyone else. Hadley felt sick when she was away from Ernest for too long, which shows how reliant she was on him.
The Hemingways’ relationship fell apart slowly. Richardson makes the mistake of losing
the case that held four years’ worth of Hemingway’s work. Pauline Pfeiffer, a glamorous young journalist, then enters the story so fearlessly and confidently that the audience, as well as Hadley, could sense trouble. What seems easily predictable to the readers remains oblivious to Hadley, which often seemed irritating. Pfeiffer lived a double life as Richardson’s best friend while at the same time pursuing Hemingway. The marriage ultimately falls apart after one catastrophic summer when the love triangle goes on vacation together.
The Paris Wife is a work of literature that engages readers as they journey through Paris, where anyone can feel like an artist. Richardson’s innocence enables readers to identify trouble before she does. As both Hemingway’s career and Richardson’s life continued, Paris left a memorable impact on their hearts. As Hadley Richardson states, “I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.”