Book Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Ernest Hemingway was a fascinating man and troubled soul. He was man’s man, but a weak, needy, and unlikable person. He was self-absorbed and quick to anger, but fun-loving and desperate for love. He suffered from low self-esteem and alcoholism, but wrote vivid, earthy stories destined to become classics. All this per Paula McLain’s research and Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley.

Just as interesting as Hemingway was the woman who first believed in his writing, supported him, and put his need to write above all else. Their lives and adventures together became the stuff of his best novels.

Why did Hadley put up with Hemingway’s mood swings, his restlessness, his drinking? She loved him. She was raised to believe it was her duty to stand by her man. She came alive when they were together. 

At their meeting, she was an attractive, but unassuming, easily overlooked young woman. She appreciated his attention and fell in love. Before long she realized, he needed her as much as she needed him. After five years of marriage, the attention-craving writer, becomes a published author and their lives became of whirlwind of travel, parties, and celebrities. Hadley had her share of fun too, but is devastated when Ernest is lured away by fawning socialites. 

Rich, modern young people of the 1930s didn’t believe in long marriages and fell in love at every party. Hadley was gauche enough to protest her husband’s philandering and he belittled her for it. To save her marriage, she put up with his and hers friendship with Pauline, Pauline’s visits to Ernest’s bed, and their communal living arrangements. 

Hadley eventually insists Ernest honor his love for her and their child by putting aside his dalliance with Pauline. She loses that gamble, but senses her own strength and moves out of his life. Her life becomes settled, full and happy while his health, three additional marriages, and life spiral into disaster.

Hemingway was a flawed and tortured man with whom the reader sympathizes. We want him to be happy, as she did. We want the celebrated author to succeed and survive. Even so, I cheered for his Paris wife as she came into her own and broke away from him and left him to his self-directed fate. 

A very good story with many issues to discuss––a great book club choice.

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