Paula McLain’s historical novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage has been climbing up the best-seller lists as steadily as reviewers have been dismissing it. The Los Angeles Times called the book “a Hallmark version” of Hemingway’s Paris years, hampered by “pedestrian writing and overpowering sentiment.” The New York Times concurred, calling Hemingway’s wife Hadley “a stodgy bore” and McLain’s prose cliche-ridden and plodding. So who’s right: enthusiastic book-buying audiences or unsympathetic critics?
Score one for the consumers. “The Paris Wife” is a richer and more provocative book than many reviewers have acknowledged. What they call cliches are simply conventions that all historical novels share, including Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank,” the acclaimed best seller that McLain’s book superficially resembles. And “The Paris Wife” is a more ambitious effort than just a Hallmark version of Americans in Paris. It’s an imaginative homage to Hadley Richardson Hemingway, whose quiet support helped her young husband become a writer, and it gives readers a chance to see the person Hemingway aspired to be before fame turned him into something else.
Building her fictional but scrupulously true-to-life narration around many source materials, including two full-length biographies of Hadley as well as Hemingway’s posthumous memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” McLain begins by dramatizing how damaged Ernest and Hadley were by the time they met in Chicago in 1920. Hadley’s father had killed himself in their St. Louis home when she was 13, a grim foreshadowing of Ernest’s father’s suicide and, decades later, Ernest’s own. She had also mourned the deaths of a beloved older sister and her mother.
Ernest, who had been seriously wounded in Italy during the Great War while a teenager, was suffering from the shaking nightmares and depression that today we call post-traumatic stress disorder and was then known as shell shock. This early brush with death had a profound influence on much of Hemingway’s future behavior and on all the fiction he wrote. McLain is right to underscore it, along with Hadley’s abundant sympathy for his suffering, with compassionate sensitivity.
Ernest and Hadley were down when they met, but they weren’t out. He was 21 and burning to be a writer. She was 28 and yearning to be a wife. They fell hard for each other. If the novel’s beginning sections stumble over a few expository bumps (Hadley: “What do you mean to do?” Ernest: “Make literary history, I guess.”), the narrative finds its flow a few months after the couple’s wedding, when they make their way to Paris. Hadley’s impressions of the city — dirty, war-shocked, tawdry and raw — stand out against Ernest’s instantaneous delight, though in time she came to appreciate “the oddity and the splendor.”
There was no doubt that here, on the cheap, Ernest was able to make Paris his informal university. Here he could learn from working-class Parisians as well as expatriate intellectuals, many of whom — notably Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein — served as mentors who helped him forge a blazingly new way to write fiction. He could study the Cezannes at the Musee du Luxembourg, figuring out how to translate the depths of their purity into language. And he could devote long, arduous hours to writing in cafes and garrets, knowing that Hadley, who hoped for his success as fervently as if it were her own, would be waiting for him soothingly at home.
Like all perfect setups, this one would not last. The tale of its ruin is familiar, but it gains freshness from Hadley’s point of view. With his first flush of literary notoriety, Ernest cast off his mentors, alienating them with a self-sabotaging viciousness that became a lifelong habit. At the same time, his social circle widened to include a recklessly modern new crowd, including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Duff Twysden — the model for Lady Brett Ashley in “The Sun Also Rises” — and Sara and Gerald Murphy. Their high-life bohemianism threatened Hadley, who was by now happily if squarely encumbered with a baby son. Then, in a still-sickening betrayal, Ernest engineered an exit from his marriage by conducting a prolonged, open affair with Hadley’s friend Pauline Pfeiffer, the perilously chic Vogue staffer who became the second of his four wives.
McLain writes about Hadley’s pain during the death throes of her marriage with a terrible delicacy, suitable for this modest, steadfast woman who was nobody’s fool. (It’s clear that the author knows plenty about abandonment: Her 2003 memoir, “Like Family,” is a scorchingly frank reminiscence of growing up in foster homes in the 1970s.) At a low point, when Ernest, Hadley and Pauline are vacationing together in southern France, Hadley takes note of their three bicycles on a rock path. “You could see just how thin each kickstand was under the weight of the heavy frame, and how they were poised to fall like dominoes or the skeletons of elephants,” she says. Hemingway fans will not fail to remember the haunting image in his story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” when death approaches “in pairs, on bicycles, and moved absolutely silently on the pavements.”
Fame turned Hemingway into a self-crafted legend, an archetype and finally a parody. He was, as Joseph Epstein wrote in The Washington Post in 1970, “the first of the American writers we came to know too well.” Part of McLain’s accomplishment in this origin story is to make us look again at the Paris husband behind the Paris wife; not at the mythical swaggering Papa, but at the young, death-consumed writer who became a poet of death, who invented a new language to bring it to life, and whose brute emotional literary power will not be dismissed.
Rifkind is a writer in Los Angeles.
THE PARIS WIFE
By Paula McLain Ballantine 318 pp. $25