Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

"Not everyone believed in marriage then. To marry was to say you believe in the future and in the past, too- that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up. But the war had come and stolen all the fine men and our faith, too. There was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow, let alone forever."
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is the story of Ernest Hemingway's first wife Hadley, beginning when she first meets him and following their courtship, ultimately resulting in marriage before they move to Paris together. The basic premise of the novel reminded me of Colum McCann, for example Dancer, in the sense that McLain takes historical individuals and writes her own biography of them, which while not entirely true does have a strong basis in fact. When The Paris Wife first caught my eye, I was immediately hooked although slightly concerned about the possibility of overwhelming historical details that sometimes plague historical fiction based on real people. In this case, I found the book wavered in its success of avoiding such a complaint.

I found the beginning of The Paris Wife seemed much more poetically written than the following chapters and I was immediately hooked into by Hadley's intelligent voice, especially when she said such things as:
"Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris."
As I continued reading however, McLain's prose began to let me down, oftentimes making The Paris Wife feel like a biography with dialogue. Although the premise was initially interesting, I am personally not at all familiar with Hemingway's work, I haven't even read a single book by him to be honest, so I was more interested in the emotions involved with living through the twenties as well as being the wife of a man on the precipice of great recognition at a time when women where mainly pushed into the background. Hadley often contemplates the fact that she is forced to talk with the other wives, excluded from the "artist's world", restricted to talking about fashion and other "womanly" things. I wished McLain had delved deeper into Hadley's feelings about her role as a wife and her longing to assert herself, which appears in wisps only to disappear leaving a female character who is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her husband.

One of the more entertaining aspects of The Paris Wife are the encounters Hadley and Ernest have with other famous writers of the time such as Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I loved the scenes involving their parties and some of Zelda Fitzegerald's famous antics. The behind the scenes look into the lives of these Modernist writers was interesting, but didn't provide enough substance to carry the novel either as they were only brief glimpses. There were a few powerful moments, such as when Hadley loses all of Ernest's writing and the subsequent search to see if it will be recovered. Overall, though, the novel lacked the life I expected from a work of fiction and came across too straightforward. Possibly, my expectations of the book were simply too high, especially with such a wonderful beginning, and despite initially drawing me into the world Hadley occupied the book didn't truly let me into her mind and heart. Overall, The Paris Wife was not the vibrant and emotional portrait I was hoping for and although I liked it, I didn't fall in love, and so I would restrict my recommendation of the book mainly to individuals who are already interested in learning more about Hemingway or other literary figures who existed during the 1920s in Paris.

Release Date: February 22nd, 2011
Pages: 352
: 3/5

Source: ARC from Publisher
Buy the Book


  1. You should probably read a few books by Hemingway.

  2. To echo Anonymous' comment, the Hemingway book you should read is "A moveable feast" - it deals with his time in Paris.

  3. Read "A Moveable Feast" - Hemingway's own reconstruction of his time in Paris.

  4. I really think this book is a triumph. The subject matter definitely piqued my interest, the writing was flawless, and I wish there could be a sequel.

  5. "Moveable Feast" and "The Great Gatsby" belong on every American bookshelf. Poetic beauty and much human truth to ponder in both.

  6. I agree with "Anonymous": ignorance of Hemingway is no valid argument
    for panning the book.
    Second point: "to lose" is spelled with one 'o'.

    1. Thanks for the spelling correction, I've fixed it. It is just my own personal blog and there's nobody to edit it but me so it's not surprising mistakes slip through.

      I didn't pan the book, I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. I was being honest and admitting I hadn't read Hemingway and that I was more interested in the emotions than the history. So my problems were with that aspect, as I explained. I think you probably realized that which is why you decided to comment on anonymous :) For all I know it's been the same person leaving all these comments.


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