The Paris Wife
by Paula McLain
It has been quite awhile since I’ve felt this much hatred for a character. The icing on the cake, however, is that Ernest Hemingway isn’t really a character, he’s a real person. Though this book is a fictional account of his first marriage, it has been well-researched, and Hemingway’s volatile and unfaithful nature is well-known. Altogether, I found myself absolutely horrified with the way he treated his wife, and I began to lash out every time I heard his name mentioned. A quotation of his popped up on my dashboard several times in the past week, and each time I saw it, I launched into explicit rants about what a scoundrel he was. At the bookstore where I work, I would see his books out of place and literally talk to them, haughtily saying, “Well, Mr. Hemingway, you can stay right where you are, because a jerk like you doesn’t deserve any more attention!” I’m going to further add to my embarrassment by admitting that I even tried to talk a customer out of buying one of his books the other day: “DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS SCUMBAG DID?!?!“
Hadley is a woman who feels like a burden. At a time when women are supposed to be married off young, she is living as a spinster aunt in her sister’s marital home. When she visits a friend in the big city, she meets Ernest Hemingway, who is a bit of a lush, a bit of a boxer, and a heck of a writer. His fun-loving nature instantly draws her to him, and although she is far too old to think he would ever be interested in her, Hadley’s continual praise of his work makes him reconsider his thoughts about marriage, and soon, the two are wed and heading to Paris to follow his writing dreams.
Throughout the book, Hadley is a cheerleader for her husband, whose unpredictable mood swings, frugal nature, and lust for other women make their marriage anything but easy. As typical of that time, however, Hadley is willing to support her husband in everything, including his habit of severing ties with all of their friends at the most minor of provocations. As her character states: “I would scrimp and make do and not resent it at all because it was my choice in the end. I was choosing him, the writer, in Paris.”
Hemingway’s selfishness and Hadley’s blind devotion to him painted an uninspiring picture of matrimony, but it’s clear that they were clinging to something that should never have existed. In the trendy, artsy circles they belonged to, “marriages” were open or non-existent. Babies and family life were frowned upon, and life was loose. Hadley clung to marriage, thinking it would protect her, but nothing was safe from Paris or the city’s idea of modernism.
Of course, things ended poorly, but what was interesting (and sometimes infuriating) to me was how detached the first person voice was. Emotions were mentioned, and you could feel Hadley’s pain, but it was though she was telling the story from her old age and left the more raw feelings out. Of course, that made it easier to read in some places, but in others, her complicity with apparent lack of feeling was frustrating (I’ll discuss this less vaguely in the “spoilers” section).
I was so tempted to tell people not to read this book because I didn’t like the way it made me feel. The mere thought of adultery makes me sick to my stomach, and when the going gets rough for Hemingway and Hadley, I was positively nauseous. It’s no secret that Hemingway is a cheating cad. Even if one doesn’t know this starting out, it is mentioned in the prologue. Still, the book was eloquently written and made literary figures so strange and distant to myself seem like neighbors. I love books that give me a glimpse into history without all the boring bits, and while this book was a work of fiction, I felt it gave me a pretty good handle on Hemingway’s beginnings.
I would recommend this book for anyone who is content with never reading another Hemingway book again.
Okay, so I can’t help but go into more detail about what a jerk this guy was. In addition to cheating on her, openly flirting with other women in front of her, and writing a book about a vacation they took together with his crush as the heroine and Hadley completely left out altogether, he leaves her for her best friend. I get it, I mean, the best friend was a total skank, too, but he didn’t bother resisting. Her friend, Pauline, was this strong woman with plenty of money and a wardrobe to be envious of - all things that Hadley could have possessed if Hemingway had given her a dime. How was she to compete with a Vogue journalist when her husband insisted on wasting all their money on rent for a second apartment to write/conduct his affairs in? Over the course of their friendship, Pauline slowly begins edging her way into the Hemingways’ marriage, joining them on their annual family vacation to sleep with Hemingway on the side. At one point, she has sex with him while Hadley is laying right next to them in bed. This is how disgusting the affair got. And while this is happening, Hadley, with that detached, unfeeling air, doesn’t voice her anger, she just simply floats over the whole event.
It made me sick. At the end of the book, when it is revealed that Hemingway shot himself, I literally wrote in my little reading journal “Good riddance, scum!” This book has made me a firm Hemingway-hater. Bah humbug!