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Reviewed by:
  • The Paris Wife
  • Ron McFarland
The Paris Wife. By Paula McLain. New York: Ballantine Books, 2011. 336 pp. Cloth $25.

If one wished simply to acquire some solid awareness of the relationship between Hadley Richardson Hemingway and her husband Ernest, one might pick up a copy of Alice Hunt Sokoloff ’s short volume, Hadley: The First Mrs. Hemingway (1973), based largely on interviews with her, or one might inquire into the one hundred plus pages devoted to her in Bernice Kert’s The Hemingway Women (1983), or into Gioia Diliberto’s more elaborate treatment in Hadley (1992), and one would not want to overlook her interview in Denis Brian’s The True Gen (1988). In effect, Hadley Richardson Hemingway Mowrer’s life has been quite thoroughly documented, and of course we also have Hemingway’s de facto tribute to her in A Moveable Feast (1964; restored edition 2009).

But what if one wanted something less objective, more interpretive and intimate, something that makes an effort to catch the spirit, from Hadley’s perspective, of those half dozen years (1920–1926) that cover the courtship, marriage, and painful dissolution of their life together? That is what Paula McLain undertakes in her novel, The Paris Wife, which is carefully, perhaps even painstakingly, researched, taking advantage of correspondence available at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, as her note on the sources indicates. Reading McLain’s ably written novel one finds oneself wondering whether fiction is indeed in some respects truer than fact. “This isn’t a detective story,” Paula-as-Hadley tells us in the brief prologue, “I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well-made head she’ll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen.”

The story is familiar enough to every Hemingway aficionado and to anyone who has read A Moveable Feast, but the narrative viewpoint is typically either that of the retrospectively guilt-ridden Hemingway or of the putatively objective biographer. Hadley, as McClain portrays her, comes across as credibly ingenuous, sensible, and loving, both as wife and mother. She comes across as bright and possessed of the requisite literary and general intellectual curiosity that one would assume she must have had in order to appeal to Ernest Hemingway. Her sister Fonnie, she says, “was obedient and bendable and good in a way my mother could easily understand and praise. I was impulsive and [End Page 131] talkative and curious about everything.” Too often Hadley has been portrayed as a rather dowdy, matronly Midwestern wife-type, quite properly remanded to the custody of Alice B. Toklas while her husband speaks with the oracle Gertrude Stein of more important matters. While McLain does not offer her up as a daredevil, she does present us a sympathetic and thoughtful portrait of Hemingway’s first wife. But McLain’s Hadley maintains what could be read as grimly unassuming modesty, if it were not for her sense of humor: “If the women in Paris were peacocks, I was a garden-variety hen.”

Meanwhile, in a few scattered two-to-four-page chapters set in italics, McLain opens us up to what she imaginatively reconstructs as Hemingway’s inner thoughts, and she does this rather well, not overplaying her hand: “It wasn’t Hadley’s fault. Getting married had been all his idea, but he hadn’t told her how very afraid of it he was.” Near the end of the novel he reflects that Pauline is his “future [. . .] But if he was honest with himself, he knew he didn’t trust her either. That part of love might be lost to him forever.” Significantly, it is in this last interior monologue (of sorts) that Hemingway reflects on the enormous impact of the lost manuscripts. Even though he believes “Hadley was the best woman he knew,” he considers her loss of the manuscripts to be “the most terrible thing he’d ever lived through,” worse in some ways than his war wound, leaving him...


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pp. 131-133
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