In The Paris Wife, we witness first-hand what it is like to be married to a literary genius. Hadley Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, steers us through her tumultuous love affair with the egotistical, moody alcoholic, who wrote classics like In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms.
The story begins in Midwest America where Hadley and Ernest meet and marry, but Paula McLain quickly deposits us and the new couple in post-WWI Paris. Chanel is breaking new ground in fashion; F. Scott Fitzgerald has just published The Great Gatsby; Gertrude Stein is living with her lesbian lover and collecting young writer pupils; Feminism is creating a new generation of women; and monogamous marriages are on the decline.
Hadley and Ernest seem to have a beautiful marriage, one that many of their friends and acquaintances admire. However, Hadley often feels lonely. Ernest has his writing, which comes before her and she has no occupation of her own. They live meagerly on her trust fund and the little money he gets from writing articles for the newspaper.
(Honestly, most of their money seems to go toward liquor. The book is rife with scenes of alcohol soaked parties resulting in imbibed boxing matches and verbal assaults. These people hardly eat, but nearly every scene involves booze.)
Stories about women who fall in love with artists never end well. Artists and geniuses have some kind of gravitational pull that sucks people in despite all common sense. Yet these geniuses are so completely obsessed with their work (and sometimes themselves) that everything/everyone else is secondary. The Paris Wife starts off beautifully but as Ernest’s fame grows so does his head, and he and Hadley begin to lose friends and the love that brought them together.
McLain certainly did her homework. (When Hadley loses Ernest’s valise that contains all of his writing, I felt the horror.) I could make out scenes in The Paris Wife that bore striking resemblance to The Sun Also Rises and The Garden of Eden. For example, the whole troupe of Hem’s friends go to Spain to watch the running with the bulls. And the detail with which McLain describes the violence and the charged energy resembles Hemingway’s own scenes in The Sun and in the vignettes in In Our Time. When Ernest takes a lover, Pauline, who is also Hadley’s friend a strange threesome begins–similar to The Garden of Eden.
It’s the affair with Pauline that eventually breaks up their marriage. Ernest’s ego is too big for him and he seems so unstable that he can’t make decisions for himself. Pauline seduces him. Hadley tries to accept his infidelity but eventually leaves him. And all the while he’s wondering why he can’t love two women at once and why they have to make everything so sad and complicated.
We all know who Hemingway was; some of us love him and some of us don’t. I don’t. And, after reading The Paris Wife, I now feel more justified for not liking him. The only Hemingway book I really enjoyed was The Garden of Eden–and that’s probably because it was a posthumous novel put together by an editor not by Hemingway himself. (I must also speak to the literary merit of In Our Time. It’s pretty brilliant, but I still don’t like Hemingway.)