Dreams, Illusion, Reality – The Paris Wife

Reading Paula McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’ I rapturously turned the pages, captivated in a cathartic way in the character of Hadley Richardson, whose story and perceptions I became absorbed with, whose life and relationships I was invested in as a reader and also as someone who has lived in France for six years. Yet at the end I am left feeling somewhat deceived.

‘The Paris Wife’ explores a brief passage in the life of 28 year old Hadley Richardson, from shortly after the death of her mother, when she meets and after a brief courtship, marries the much younger Ernest Hemingway, until their separation and subsequent divorce. Hemingway is a 21 year old war veteran and struggling journalist with his eyes set on Rome, until the writer Sherwood Anderson, convinces them the future lies in Paris.

The young couple embark on their journey, Hadley doing her best to support her husband and not burden him with her own insecurities. Neither glamorous nor ambitious, she is honest and good and able to provide Hemingway with an emotional foundation and stability that he has not been able to garner since his return from war, or perhaps earlier, when the arrival of a baby brother shattered the illusion of a special bond he believed he had with his mother. It is a pattern that will be repeated in his life, the attempt to recreate a safe, protective feeling akin to childhood with a woman, only for it to fall apart.

It is not long before cracks appear, Hemingway’s foreign assignment to Turkey bring back feelings of despair, displacement and the nightmares of war; walking in the rain, death, sickness and desperation in the air, his esteem low, he brings himself lower by acting on it. We learn this period was preceded by his breaking the ‘exclusive’ work contract with his employers without informing them – signs of a divide within himself – and Hadley’s discomfort with his dishonesty feeds the more paranoid of her instincts.

While in Paris, Hemingway spends his days writing, initially rejecting the cafés with their posing artists, though soon overcomes his distaste and discovers the joy of café life once they develop their own circle of friends. Hemingway’s obsession with corrida (bullfighting) result in numerous visits to Spain accompanied by friends and these sojourns become the basis of his novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ about a group of expatriates who travel from Paris to the Festival of Fermin in Pamplona.

One of the most striking and memorable moments supports a comment by Hemingway scholar Jamie Barlowe that Hadley Richardson “was a ‘true’ woman and not a ‘new’ woman of the early 19th century” and shows both how removed she was from their group and the reverence Hemingway held for her. Hemingway dedicates ‘The Sun Also Rises’ to Hadley and although she was there in person and recognises much of what happens in the novel, she is the one person from their circle that does not exist between its pages. She is hurt by the exclusion, though spared the humiliation. She was at a loss in the company of Lady Duff, whom Hemingway models the female character on, a honey pot of a woman who, oblivious to the neurotic attentions of the men, was present with a much ignored fiancé and drooled over by Hemingway and Harold who end up in fisticuffs over misplaced jealousies. Hadley’s recognition and special moment come in the most romantic and gory of gestures, when the much admired matador Cayetano Ordóñez makes eye contact with her from the bullring and publicly gifts her the rare token of the bull’s ear, bloody and warm from the soon to be sacrificed animal.

The deception is that the story and the author’s interest continue only as long as she is married to Hemingway, a mere six years, effectively cancelling her out as a character so soon, no longer interesting without the crutch of an infamous husband. Did her life cease to hold interest or meaning beyond those years; are we really only interested in her because she was married to Ernest Hemingway? Sadly it appears so, deceived because it is true, we are to be concerned with her only for the duration of her marriage to Hemingway, despite having come to know her sufficiently to want to know more. She has become a victim of the modern cult of the celebrity, famous only for being linked with someone famous.

I think back to another wife of a famous man I reviewed recently ‘The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine Bonaparte‘. Josephine starts out as a modest character named Rose Tacher whom we are introduced to many years and one marriage before she meets Napoléon Bonaparte; we are fortunate that interest in her isn’t restricted to her marriage to Bonaparte, we are already hooked into her character and have completed an entire novel before Bonaparte even enters the scene.

Despite the deception, I recommend ‘The Paris Wife’ as an alternative, behind the scenes look at the 1920’s lives of the group Gertrude Stein called ‘the lost generation’ and also at the inspiration and experiences that influenced much of Ernest Hemingway’s work penned during this era. But perhaps most of all because McLain introduces us to a woman we can relate to and empathise with, someone we can imagine as a friend or confidante, who aspires to the same things that so many women yearn for, because she allows us to imagine and feel what it must have been like to harbour such simple and honest ambitions while navigating a fresh marriage in a new city and foreign country and culture.

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30 thoughts on “Dreams, Illusion, Reality – The Paris Wife

    • Just read an interesting essay by Pat Conway which refers to him being given Hemingway by an English teacher for exactly the same reason. It didn’t really work for Conway, he was way too enamoured with Thomas Wolfe and his style, much to the concern of his teacher and mentor.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your insight — I really liked McLain’s telling of the story, which I amplified by also reading Papa’s “The Moveable Feast.” Seeing “Midnight In Paris” just a few weeks before the reads further enhanced the experience.

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    • Yes, I’m intrigued to read ‘A Moveable Feast’ published posthumously I believe. ‘Midnight in Paris’ continues the fascination with this period in history and that generation.

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  2. I read this book because I’m fascinated by the tragic and brilliant character that was Hemingway. I’m not a huge fan of his novels or short stories – just his persona. I found Hadley’s character equally fascinating.

    “Midnight in Paris” is in my Netflix queue!

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  3. Hi Claire! I also read and reviewed The Paris Wife this past summer. I just loved it. She was such a steadfast person and next to her, Hemingway’s character is just so…selfish! Interesting points about people getting lost in their proximity to celebs…I’m interested to hear what you are reading next!

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  4. I too liked The Paris Wife. I appreciate more and more the heartfelt stories of the powerful women behind the powerful men. Hemingway seemed selfish, yes, and yet he seemed a tortured soul, while his wife seemed so very down to earth.

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  5. Thanks for this great review. This book is actually on my “to read” list. I’ll let you know what I think of it. Thanks also for stopping by my blog today and commenting. I really like yours too. Will be back for sure as I’m an avid reader!

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  6. I’ve never read Hemingway. That he liked bullfighting is enough to scare me away. 🙂 The Paris Wife sounds more my speed. It also reminds me of Beth Orton’s Paris Train.

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  7. Hi Claire. I enjoyed your take on this book. I understand your concern about ending Hadley’s story when the marriage ended. There were books that gave her more in-depth study that McLain used as research. I believe one reason she stopped there was because she was using her novel as a counterpoint to Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” (a book you must read even if you’re not a Hemingway fan). Interestingly enough, I just reviewed “A Paris Wife” myself http://www.traveling-through.com/2011/10/what-i-read-paris-wife.html

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    • Thanks for the comment and the link to your blog Julie, I love your insightful review and the comment about the reading where some of Hadley’s relatives were present, that sounds like an amazing moment for both the author and the audience.

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  8. You’ve successfully piqued my interest regarding The Paris Wife with this post. Having been a Hemingway for a long time, I look forward to exploring Hadley’s relationship with him, but more importantly what her life was like. It sounds quite interesting! Even more so when I read that she was presented with the bull’s ear. That is indeed an honor!

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  9. I have been debating on whether or not to read this book. Each time I wander into the book store looking for something lush ( I am dying for a really good book to get lost with, any suggestions), anyway, I have yet to make the commitment to The Paris Wife, but your review does invite me. Loved the images, btw. Perfect. I loved Spain. We are planning a trip to Barcelona this summer (fingers crossed)… as you muse is London, mine is Barcelona.

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  10. Hi Claire

    Interesting to read your review and I did have to read something by Hemingway while at school. But now I am enjoying reading Women of the Outback which I brought while on our tour. What amazing women- there is no way I could live so far from the amenities of towns.

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    • Yes, it dawned on me that I too had a secondary school experience of Hemingway with ‘Old Man and The Sea’ which may explain why I never got back to him, I was more enthralled by Alexander Pope’s rolling burlesque ‘Rape of the Lock’ full of poetic metaphor and rhyming couplets and humour, than the arid pages of Hemingway.

      ‘Women of the Outback’ sounds very interesting and I would love to read it; the awe of those who choose to remain or find themselves through romantic notions in the outback. I have read and really enjoyed ‘The Road from Coorain’ by Jill Ker Conway, though she is one who escaped, spending her childhood on a remote sheep station and then to university in Sydney and eventually Harvard. Thanks for commenting Helen 🙂

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  14. I have to admit I’ve been visiting here and there throughout your blog and you have me most exceedingly intrigued to immerse myself in this time period. I’ve acquired Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, The Paris Wife, Gertrude Stein, The Great Gatsby…and soon to purchase A Moveable Feast along with Tender is the Night….

    My question is based on your experience with these…which would you recommend beginning with?

    And thank you again for recommending 1Q84 ~ Immensely enjoyed it!!!

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    • I love how you’ve joined these all up together Christina, I admit I really just stumbled across them one after the other and then at some point started looking for the others. But oh, what a hard question to answer.

      I guess I would suggest reading the non-fiction titles first, so Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Diana Souhami’s Gertrude and Alice, this then gives everyone something of a balance, as each book shows it bias either for or against some of the characters that make up this lost generation. I would actually read Z:A Novel of Zelda before reading Fitzgerald’s work, even though I did the opposite (well, I was waiting for Z to be published).

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      • I think the allurement for me to read more of this time period was courtesy of your review of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald…I finally found a copy of that at a local book shop…but have yet to find Gertrude and Alice (sad face). That review also lead me to others including The Paris Wife…so I have you to thank, again, for joining all these together. It is so fascinating to me to imagine that time period and so much talent mingling together….simply enchanting!

        I will definitely go with your suggestion for the reading order on these! I think I shall resort to Amazon for Gertrude and Alice, even though I prefer to visit the shops and actually “feel” the books before buying.

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      • I too like the way the books often present themselves, one might say, in the order that they wish to be read – in which case I might if I were you have the intention to read the non-fiction but since I am presented with Z – which is based on such thorough research, some have even questioned the need to fictionalise it – but without fiction, we would not have the voice and I think Therese Fowler captures the voice of Zelda that is totally believable.

        So, don’t hold back, read Z as if it really were Zelda speaking! 🙂 And when the others present themselves, follow their trail!

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      • I did see both the author and your reviews on Goodreads for Z…put that with your very compelling advice to ‘follow the books’ so I shall indeed!

        I feel I’m in for a treat…a rare glimpse into the crossing of many lives during such a magical time in history. I have just begun Z, and after this comment plan to continue on…whilst keeping an eye out for the others to present themselves. Thank you again!! 🙂

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