“There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.” – Ernest Hemingway. So reads the epigraph at the beginning of Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife. A carefully researched book, The Paris Wife offers readers a new side of Hemingway’s “truth” (or should I say an alternate fiction) – an intimate story based on the courtship and marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, from her point of view. Despite some moments of cliché and frustration, The Paris Wife is a raw, refreshing take on one of the literary world’s most fabled romances.
In Hemingway’s novels, Hadley remains relatively voiceless. She is an object of love and admiration; less of a fully developed human than a tool off of which Hemingway bounces self-consumed emotions and musings. McLain allows Hadley to flourish as a character, and even more as a narrator, providing a thought provoking look at the world that, traditionally Hemingway’s, becomes Hadley’s.
From the very beginning, Hadley is an endearing and engaging woman. McLain makes her adorably uncool (she was, as Janet Maslin wrote in her review of The Paris Wife for The New York Times, “admittedly unfashionable”). The book begins: “It’s October 1920 and jazz is everywhere. I don’t know any jazz, so I’m playing Rachmaninoff.” While Hemingway was often the (flawed) hero of his writing and took on a ruggedly heroic persona in his own life, Hadley is the undeniable heroine of The Paris Wife. She is a different kind of heroine: eloquent and understated, womanly in a strong, sturdy way, loving, loyal, and steadfast (though at times to the point of frustration).
The reader watches the events depicted in classic Hemingway works such as A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises unfold from Hadley’s point of view. We are privy to her opinions of the famous characters who surrounded the Hemingways: Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald. We look on helplessly as Hemingway falls in love with Pauline Pfieffer before our (and Hadley’s) eyes and as Ernest and Hadley’s marriage falls into dysfunction and decay.
I want to say that I fell in and out of love with Ernest as Hadley does, but that was just not the case. McLain’s Hadley acknowledges Hem’s unique genius and his good, despite his self-absorption, infidelity, and immaturity for much longer than I could. Perhaps the most striking example of this was McLain’s depiction of Hadley reading “Tatie’s” (her nickname for Hemingway) draft of The Sun Also Rises: “when he gave me the pages to read, it took me no time at all to realize that everything was just as it had happened in Spain . . . It was all nearly verbatim, except for one thing – I wasn’t in it all.” And yet, Hadley remains calm and unbelievably reasonable: “‘I could see how remarkable the work was, more exciting and alive than anything he’d ever written’ . . . ‘Is it any good?’ Ernest said when I’d finally finished. ‘I have to know.’ ‘It’s more than good, Tatie. There’s nothing like it anywhere.’”
I have to admit that moments like this were a bit frustrating. I felt sorry for Hadley and admired her poise and composure, but I wanted desperately for her to ditch Hem before he turned Pauline into his live-in girlfriend (or at least be a little more angry about it). However, McLain does have Hadley eventually address that frustration, allowing the reader access to her anger and hurt: “I wanted to scream. I didn’t scream, and that became one of the things I grew to regret.”
Although this novel is a fictionalization of Hem and Hadley’s relationship, it is heavily based on true events, and McLain conducted intensive research prior to its writing. She read letters of, as she referred to it, their “delicious correspondence,” and Hadley’s speech for the book was modeled on her language patterns in those letters. Much of the time, McLain’s bare, straightforward writing style (and Hadley’s speech) mimics Hemingway’s signature barebones melodrama: “how sad and strange we all are,” Hadley at one point laments. Although this writing style is classic and beautiful, the book at times feels like a parody of Hem’s style. This is especially noticeable in the few italicized chapters from his point of view:
“The rich had better days and freer nights. They brought the sun with them and made the tides move. Pauline was a new model of woman and why couldn’t he have her? Why couldn’t he reach out and claim everything he wanted?”
“Who the hell does this guy think he is?” McLain, Hadley, and I seemed to be asking together. It felt good to question him.