Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: The Paris Wife

I do not like Hemingway.

I was blessed with a fabulous high school English program, where we tackled the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Hesse and Faulkner. I loved it all. Except for Hemingway. The Snows of Kilimanjaro? Too dull. Hills Like White Elephants? Misogynistic. The Old Man and the Sea? I rooted for the sea. God bless Mrs. Dose, Ms. Mormile and good old Dr. Kelley. They did their best. They pointed out the vivid story arcs and the beauty of the spare language. But I never learned to like Hemingway.*

Which is my way of saying that unlike some readers of Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, I was willing to dislike Hemingway the person as much as I had always disliked Hemingway the writer from the get-go. And that may have driven my reading of this book. Where his first wife, Hadley Richardson, saw charm and spontaneity, I saw oiliness and rashness. Where she saw genius, I saw vainglory. Where she saw bravery, I saw bravado. And from the perspective of the novel, I think it worked really well. Right from the beginning, I adored Hadley, and couldn’t see what she saw in the young and callow Ernest anyway. At least for me, McLain was able to conjure a sense of protectiveness about Hadley.

The book is heartbreakingly narrated from Hadley’s perspective, and we watch her slowly awaken to Hemingway’s insatiable nature. On her first trip to Italy, she visits the place where Hemingway fell in love with his nurse, only to be devastated when she rejected his marriage proposal. He says he’s glad they can visit together, but Hadley senses more:

I knew he was telling me the truth, but I also knew that if it were possible, he would have preferred to have me and Agnes both there – his past and his present, each of us loving him without question – and the strawberries, too. The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that. pg. 100

Hadley is extraordinarily sympathetic, but almost too saintly at times. She is that girlfriend that you just want to shake some sense into – “He’s treating you like garbage, for God’s sake! You’re better off without him!” And there were times when her forbearance bordered on the creepy, suffering through Hemingway’s flagrant adultery at an excruciatingly close distance. But her story of a life lived around genius is extremely compelling, and the characters of the Lost Generation – Alice B. Toklas, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos – come alive in this novel, as do the locations they visit in the interwar period, from Italy to Austria to Paris, of course.

Based on the title, I wonder if McLain is planning a sequel – The Key West Wife? That would be tricky, because Pauline Pfeiffer, the woman who stole Hemingway from Hadley, is pretty hateful in this book. I’m not sure I could read it.

I still hate Hemingway.

*I admit that I did learn to love John Donne, however, the other author that Dr. Kelley predicted would “grow on me” over time. One out of two isn’t bad.


  1. I hate to admit that I have never read Hemingway; his work always seemed like such a bore. His reputation furthered hindered any desire I might have had to pick up one of his novels. I have, however, decided that I wanted to pick this book up, and this review presents much what I thought I would find. It's on the library queue, so I'm looking forward to sharing. This is a great review!

  2. My thoughts exactly! I was so angry with him. And Hadley, good grief woman! I loved that it brought out those emotions in me though.

  3. I find Hemingway basically meh, although his writing is sort of the antidote to the neverending sentences of, say, Henry James. I think the only one of his books I truly liked was A Moveable Feast, probably because it's about Paris.

    Years ago I was actually in Key West and I did enjoy touring his house there, which is kind of cool even if you don't like his work.

  4. @Beth -- I highly recommend it, and I can't wait to see what you think of it.

    @Chrisbookarama -- Good grief is right. And yet, I totally agree, what I thought McLain did really well was make me care about her so much. It was emotional to read.

    @Karen K -- I haven't read A Moveable Feast, and now that I've read this, I might give it a shot. His perspective on the Paris years would be really interesting, I think, even if he's an unlikeable narrator.

  5. Great review. I do want to read this and I have the book. I'm not a big Hemingway fan either. I am going to listen to A Moveable Feast before I read it though.

  6. I don't like Hemingway either. If Lady Brett Ashley announced that she needed a bath one more time, I was going to go ahead and kill her. (The Sun Also Rises) Really, I get it, you feel dirty. Blech.

  7. @Leslie -- Now that I've read it, I wish I had read A Moveable Feast. It would have given me a counteropinion for Hadley's. Of course, that would have meant reading Hemingway, see above :-)

    @Karen -- Now that I've read this book, it's no wonder she felt "dirty." Blech is the right word!

  8. I really enjoyed reading your review and your unique perspective on Hemingway -- and I can't say I blame you! Despite visiting his home in Key West and attempting to read several of his novels, he's never really clicked with me, either. So I have a feeling I might like this one!


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