Paula McLain's 'The Paris Wife': the first and best of Ernest Hemingway's wives
Paula McLain's evocative and absorbing novel "The Paris Wife" tells the story of Hadley Richardson, the first of Ernest Hemingway's four wives. McLain will read from her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's University Book Store.
Special to The Seattle Times
Paula McLainThe author of "The Paris Wife" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's University Book Store; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
'The Paris Wife'
by Paula McLain
Ballantine, 314 pp., $25
The expression "starter wife," connoting the first among numerous spouses of a successful man, has a glib and crudely dismissive ring to it. Especially when applied to someone like Hadley Richardson, the first of writer Ernest Hemingway's four wives.
Paula McLain has found a better way to characterize Hadley in "The Paris Wife," McLain's exquisitely evocative new novel.
This absorbing, illuminating book gives us an intimate view of a sympathetic and perceptive woman, the striving writer she married, the glittering and wounding Paris circle they were part of, and the challenges of trying to preserve love and domesticity in the face of rising celebrity and ruthless ambition.
Though she draws faithfully from historical resources (including the couple's letters to one another), McLain reinvents the story of Hadley and Ernest's romance with the lucid grace of a practiced poet.
Written largely from Hadley's vantage point, we share her excitement when, after years spent nursing her ill mother, this lonely 28-year old "spinster" meets the dashing freelance journalist Hemingway through friends. No wonder she's instantly smitten with his charm and fervor, his fearlessness and robust vitality.
"He didn't say anything at all," she says of an early date, "just kissed me, and through that kiss I could feel all of him radiating warmth and life."
As their romance deepens, Hadley also is privy to Ernest's darker side — the post-traumatic stress of his World War I experience, the debilitating depressions that visit him.
But "The Paris Wife" gives us a full portrait of its narrator too, a gifted pianist with a firm inner core of earthy integrity who becomes an invaluable ballast for Hemingway.
It is a small inheritance of Hadley's that brings the newlyweds to Paris in 1921, so Ernest can work as a foreign correspondent and write fiction. Once there, he's taken up by the wealthy American writer and scenemaker Gertrude Stein, whose influence positively affects his art — and social life.
Meanwhile, Hadley struggles with her awkward, tangential role in the exciting milieu of painters and expat writers. As Hemingway hobnobs with pals like Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald, races off to cover wars, and toils over stories and novels that will launch his fame, she makes a home in their chilly, low-rent Parisian garret and seeks fulfillment for herself.
There are many good times for the couple: jolly ski trips in the Alps. Exciting jaunts to Spain for the bullfights (which fueled Hemingway's novel"The Sun Also Rises"). Doting over their beloved infant son Jack (called Bumby).
But as many others have chronicled, there was a desperate, destructive quality to this "lost generation" of American expats. Adulteries, broken marriages, and bitter literary rivalries abound, and the booze flows too freely.
McLain's account of Ernest's betrayal of Hadley with her conniving best friend (and his future second wife) is agonizingly poignant. But it's clear Hadley's strength and sense of honor will pull her through.
And it's clear what she meant to the faithless Hemingway from his Paris memoir "A Moveable Feast." He wrote, "I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."
Misha Berson is the theater critic for The Seattle Times.
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