Tues. Paris Reading Rec: THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain


The end is looming for my year of Paris reading recommendations, about which I'm sad -- but for the fact that I've saved some of the best titles for last. 

I'm not the first person to rave about Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, which came out in 2011, and I won't be the last. It's a remarkable book, in no small part because it avoids (as I failed to do at the end of the first paragraph) clichés while exploring a subject that's riddled with them. It's hard to write about Hemingway, or worse, write like Hemingway, without the result coming off like caricature. (And even when it's intended as caricature, as was the case--I think--in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, it's still ruinous.) 

But McLain's novel, about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, doesn't ring a false note. McLain's Hemingway sounds like Hemingway but a real--even the real--Hemingway. What's more, her Hadley, who narrates the novel, sounds fully real, fully alive, as well. Hadley was at Hemingway's side during his early Paris years and his earliest successes (and failures) as a writer. She's famously remembered as the woman who tucked all Hemingway's manuscripts into a valise and then lost them on a train from Paris to Geneva in 1922. 

That episode is sensitively portrayed here and many others besides--here's Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, all of them--and not for a minute do such appearances feel forced or inauthentic. 

I think that's because of what McLain works hardest to do here is not necessarily capture an 'accurate' portrait of famous writers and their lovers (though I found everything perfectly accurate) but rather an accurate account of two people from the Midwest who fell in love and then embarked on the adventure of their lives.

Even though I knew how it ended--McLain's novel is fiction, but again, she sticks to the facts--I still found myself hoping that things would work out. Not only for Hadley's sake, but Ernest's. Hadley would marry once more, and live, out of the limelight, until age 87. Ernest married three times more, and committed suicide at age 61. To my eye, the novel makes a case that his best years were those with Hadley. No argument here.