This book was as charming as it was heartbreaking. After reading so much about Hemingway and reading most of his novels, many vaguely autobiographical, I thought I knew all the ins and outs of Hemingway. But knowing how the story would go for Hemingway and his “Paris wife” aka first wife, Hadley, didn’t prepare me for Paula McLain’s intimate telling of their warm courtship, charming married days, especially those spent reading by the fireplace in the Swiss Alps, and most of all, I certainly wasn’t ready for the emotionally charged break-up. Knowing how their marriage (the first of four for Hemingway) would screech to a grinding halt didn’t stop me from crying through the final chapter and epilogue.
Our mother-daughter visit to Hemingway’s house in Key West is colored now by the fact that he shared it with Pauline. (Selfie from their Key West Bedroom included). Watching her enter the story as a dear friend and slowly unravel their marriage was surprisingly devastating. Hadley was simple and sympathetic. I perceived Pauline as a greater villain than she may have been because of how Hadley’s kind character lent itself to empathy. She was the wife Hemingway wished he had stayed with as the book jacket will tell you.
“… at the end of his life, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.” (The Paris Wife, book jacket copy)
Paula McLain really did her research. Some of the scenes read like déjà vu because I had already read them in one of Hemingway’s novels or bios. McLain’s MFA in poetry shines through the writing as well with such poetic prose. She writes amazingly poignant turns of phrase and she has an ability to describe an entire experience when she simply sets the scene. She writes with the same crisp “honest” writing of Hemingway but I noticed from time to time the narrative read a little like Fitzgerald. She had the Fitzgerald sparkle that embodied the Jazz Age in Paris.
I’ve been meaning to read this novel for quite some time and the anticipation was warranted. It was a perfect novel. It made me angry, made me think, made me feel insane jealousy and easy contentment, and it made me re-evaluate my reading of A Moveable Feast and especially The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway is a different person to me now than he was when I started reading The Paris Wife. Meanwhile Hadley has become a person, where before there was only the flat caricature of a person. I can’t believe Hadley’s story took so long to get told (albeit there were predecessors to The Paris Wife). But who knew there was so much depth to Hadley’s story?
At the outset, I feel as empty as Hadley did at the end of their marriage. Yet somehow I feel empty and satisfied at the same time. It’s complicated, but it seems apropos since theirs was a complicated story.
As I finished, I had the urge to read it all over again… But I won’t just yet because Palo Alto is waiting on my bureau to be read next so I can cross #18 (a collection of short stories) off my list.