Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Paris Wife (Paula McLain, 2011)

The Heroine: Hadley Richardson, a young woman living in 1920s Chicago and known to history as Ernest Hemingway's first wife. Plain, practical and intelligent, Hadley is at a crossroads in her life when she meets Ernest unexpectedly and is swept up in a romance that takes her across the Atlantic to Jazz-Age Paris, where money, art and sex intersect into a story of corruption and disillusionment.

The Highs: The author makes Paris of the 1920s come alive with her historically accurate details and her subtle descriptions that allude more to the attitude and feeling of the time and location than just the physicality. Interspersed with characters that have become legend since (Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein), the novel provides a window into an endlessly fascinating historical period, so different from our own that it sometimes feels like the people are not human at all, but some other species entirely.

Hadley herself is an extremely relate-able character, for anyone who has ever felt like a background bit player. She is warm, smart and kind, but not quite artistic enough or rich enough or innovative enough or unique enough to be fully accepted into the Paris set of creatives that dominated the city in this period. Instead, she observes from the outside, providing the grounding perspective on events that seem unimaginable to the reader. She is extremely well-written and the first person perspective pulls you into the story and makes you feel as if you are part of it.

This book reminded me pleasantly of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novel's themes speak to the idea that opulence and extravagance only lead to ruin, not happiness. Though it is dreadful to read about Hadley's downfall, you become so attached to her character throughout the story that you cannot stop reading until you know her fate (car-crash style). The writing is nearly as sumptuous and beautiful as in The Great Gatsby, as well.

The Lows: Though this only speaks to good writing on the author's part, I found myself loathing Ernest Hemingway (or at least his character) by the end of the book, along with most of the characters featured in the Paris set. Selfish and thoughtless, they made me mourn the loss of the good in humanity. Hadley is the only character who retains her kindness and goodness at the end of the novel, which only makes me love her more.

I also felt there were some parts of the novel that lagged, perhaps because the writing felt more literary than emotional at certain dramatic points in the story. I would have appreciated more tension and more emotion from all of the characters, because it seemed like some of the outrageous moments would have inspired a more dramatic reaction from myself. But maybe I'm just a drama queen!

Final Thoughts: This book is a great read for anyone who loves The Great Gatsby and other American classics, or appreciates a story with a lot of moral and social commentary.

Rating: The Paris Wife earns seven spilled cocktails out of ten. 

Buy 'The Paris Wife' on Amazon here
Connect to author Paula McLain here
Picture from here


  1. I've been longing to read this one. Yes, from what I gathered, Hem was not quite an interesting man, but I think nearly all great authors must have their selfishness in a certain degree.

    Marlene Detierro (Fishing Lodge Alaska)

  2. Loved this inside look at Hemingway as a young writer! The voice of the narrator is compelling, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book!
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