One of the inevitable things about reading books about historical figures is that you already know the ending before you begin. Anyone just a little familiar with Ernest Hemingway knows about his famous wife problems; his inability to stay committed to the woman he was already married to. So when we meet Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, we already can see the writing on the wall of their marriage. We see it before she meets him, we see it the first time they dance together and we know that there is heartbreak to come. It’s a foreboding knowledge, which steeps its way into the events of the novel and makes us want to protect the characters from their futures.
There are times, particularly in the beginning of the novel, when McLain’s storytelling becomes more biography than fiction and the narrative loses itself in a collecting of facts. This is always a danger when an author takes on such a well-known topic — the facts must be accounted for, in a way that doesn’t contradict what the reader already knows. We meet many of the emerging American writers of the day; Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound. We meet their families, their lovers. We come to understand how they worked together to form a young artist, who still had much to prove. Hadley, by being his first wife, witnessed as the world came to know her Ernest, and her point of view brings us along on the journey of Hemingway’s artistic development.
I wanted very much to not like Ernest Hemingway. It is easy and natural for me to sympathize with Hadley Richardson, who supported Hemingway for years before he sold enough of his writing to support himself. Yet McLain charms us with a young Hemingway, who is enthusiastic, romantic and intense. As his peers are urging independence and freedom, Hemingway explains to Hadley that he needs her to steady him. We see, as he fights with his night terrors from his war injuries, that he clearly does. When we learn the similarities in their families, the domineering mothers and their fathers, both lost to suicide, we can understand how two young people from thousands of miles away from each other, before an age of email, text and telephone, were so inevitably drawn together. We can feel the strength of their love.
And then, as we follow them through the five years of their marriage, I found myself identifying with what it is like to be newly married, to compromise with your new life where you must now always consider the desires of someone else. And then, as we follow the Hemingways to Paris and Pamplona, we see the effects of fame and success on them, as Ernest Hemingway graduates from the advice of his mentors and becomes a successful artist in his own right, his success eclipsing theirs with the very novel that he is revising as his first marriage dissolves.
The Paris Wife is a must-read for Hemingway fans, because it is true and honest. Although we can never truly know — and maybe we shouldn’t know — what happened between Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway, McLain paints a picture so vivid that it’s easy to forget that we don’t.