Paula McLain’s fictionalized study of the starter marriage of Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Wife, is a pleasure for anyone who wonders what it was like to be a broke, ambitious writer in Europe in the 1920s. Or, more specifically, a broke, ambitious writer’s wife.
Hadley meets Ernest at a friend’s house in Chicago. She’s in her late 20s, nearly a decade older than he is, and on the verge of permanent spinsterhood. He deflowers her, they marry and flee to Paris, where they can live cheaply and meet all manner of big shots, including Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. They have a baby, nicknamed Bumby. There’s some drinking, though Hadley doesn’t hit the sauce nearly as much as Ernest. In McLain’s hands, he’s nicer than one would think, and the word that comes to mind for Hadley is “earnest” as she struggles to make homes for them in dinky little rooms while Hem tries to make a living. In clear and unfussy prose, McLain makes the reader long for their Lost Generational squalor.
Indeed, McLain’s talent is such that the fact that few of the characters are likable doesn’t mar her story. Characters need only be interesting, and well-drawn creeps are the most interesting of them all. Exceptions to the overall badness are the Murphys, the rich, cosmopolitan and compassionate couple who adopt both the Hemingways and the F. Scott Fitzgeralds like some folks adopt ugly pound puppies, and of course Bumby, still a child when his parents’ marriage detonates. Even Hadley repels with her love of bullfighting—a woman who gets her kicks from watching an animal tortured to death is simply not someone one can like. When the appalling Pauline Pfeiffer, who will become Ernest’s second wife, crawls into bed with them one drowsy Mediterranean afternoon one doesn’t know whether to cheer or gag. Hadley, like so many of her revered matadors, ends up pretty badly gored, but survives, and lives well into her 80s.
Restrained, perceptive and a bit sad, The Paris Wife is a look at a time and a marriage that weren’t as glamorous and carefree as we’d like to believe.