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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Life + Arts

‘Paris Wife’ misses Hemingway’s mark


Combing through the bookstore selection this week, I came upon the recent New York Times bestseller “The Paris Wife,” by Paula Mclain. As a fictional account of Hemingway’s first marriage, it immediately caught my eye.

Paris, Hemingway and a litany of literary name dropping — there’s everything to like. But much like Hemingway’s first marriage, “The Paris Wife” was something that began with wonderful expectations, but failed to be all that it aspired to.

The premise is brimming with dramatic possibilities, but the story withers into a trite and fitful tale of domestic frustration and infidelity because of McClain’s writing.

Still, the intrigue of the underlying story is hard to resist.

With the likes of Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald hob-knobbing around, it’s hard not to be star-struck in the 1920s Paris setting. Readers are sure to feel the excitement of a young Ernest Hemingway as he travels to France bound for great things.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Hadley Richardson, a simple country girl who is nearly an old maid at the age of 28.

Richardson falls in love with the young Hemingway from the start, as she admires his tall, dark good looks and “a dimple in his left cheek you could fall into.” Thus begins their whirlwind romance — and an even greater whirlwind of clichés.

Soon after their marriage, Hemingway is advised by Sherwood Anderson that “if you want to do any serious work, Paris is the place to be. That’s where all the real writers are.”

Thus, the two lovers make their way to Paris.

They have a difficult time adjusting because they barely have enough money to get by. But all the while their experiences make up for it because of company they keep, which includes the likes of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Claude Monet, Gertrude Stein and eventually the vivacious (and perhaps a bit insane) F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda.

In Paris, the drab narration is colored by this array of inspiring characters. What the book loses stylistically is made up for by substance.

The reader is privy to Hemingway’s close relationship to Gertrude Stein, the eccentric antics of Fitzgerald and the mentorship Ernest had with Pound at the beginning of his career.

“(It was important for me to) render the particulars of their lives as accurately as possible,” Mclain said. “And to follow the very well documented historical record.”

I was impressed by the many intricate details pulled from real life, such as the traumatic incident of Hadley Richardson falling out of a window as a young girl and Hemingway’s turbulent relationship with his mother.

Following the Hemingways as they vacation across Europe and watching Ernest find his voice is an interesting journey.

It was fascinating to learn the origins of some of his earlier works, such as “Three Stories and Ten Poems.” I highly enjoyed watching his novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” evolve on his trip to Pamplona, Spain.

Also to Mclain’s credit, much of the text I deemed domestic and dull actually struck closer to the real Hadley, who was reserved by nature and uninterested in a social life.

Despite its missteps, “The Paris Wife” manages to engage the reader and tell a story worth telling. Granted, I imagine that if Hemingway were alive, he would have spit on the book and promptly burned it alongside the Henry James novels he so despised.

Still, much in the same way that Hadley continued to profess her love for Hemingway and forgive him for his amorous indiscretions, I’m willing to forgive the book for its short comings in favor of all that it has to offer.


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