March 12, 2012

Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Release Date: February 2011
Publisher: Random House | Ballantine Books
Pages: 314 pages
Source & Format: Christmas gift; Hardcover
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Amazon)
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness - until she meets Ernest Hemingway and her life changes forever. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair sets sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group - the fabled "Lost Generation" - that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill-prepared for the hard-drinking and fast-living life of Jazz Age Paris, which hardly values traditional notions of family and monogamy. [...] Despite their extraordinary bond, they eventually find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage - a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they've fought so hard for.

Thoughts on The Paris Wife
There was so much I loved about this book... but also a few things I didn't love. I've only read one novel by Hemginway, A Farewell to Arms, and I know next to nothing about his life. Except for what I learned while watching In Love and War (a Sandra Bullock movie from 1996) that supposedly tells the story of Ernest service as an ambulance driver in Italy during WWI and romance with his nurse. Who knows how much of that was true. Hollywood does favor added drama.

So, anyway, all that to say I went into The Paris Wife with no idea what to expect in terms of plot. I'm actually glad I didn't (although you would still enjoy the book even if you know what's coming) because I was able to experience things as they were happening rather than anticipate what was coming next. The Paris Wife is narrated by Hadley Richardson - Ernest's first wife. The reader meets and gets to know Ernest through her eyes. You get to experience their marriage and their life in Paris from her point of view. This was probably one of my favorite parts of the novel - seeing things from Hadley's perspective. McLain does a very nice job capturing Hadley.

She's twenty-eight when she meets the twenty-one-year-old Hemingway. She's captivated by him and quite content to follow his lead. Where Hemingway is moody and selfish, Hadley is steady and thinks only of Ernest. She is willing to sacrifice everything to support him and his talent. She's smart and kind, but she isn't forward or edgy like many of her female counterparts in Paris. She doesn't dazzle. She just hangs in the background propelling Ernest towards success.

The writing beautifully captured the time period. Paris comes alive on the page. From drinking and dancing to mistresses and open marriages, you'll feel as though you've lived it all. I read this book slowly, reminding myself to savor its beauty.

As for what I didn't like? The blurb mentions an "ultimate crisis" and it was Hadley's reaction to this that dampened my love for the book. Because it was based on real events, I know that McLain can't change what actually happened. But it was hard for me to read about this adoring wife who didn't stand up for herself in the way I wanted her to. I don't want to say anything more, so you'll have to read it yourself to find out more.

I'll also point out that it's obviously that a lot of research went into this book. McLain did a wonderful job making her story feel authentic and true to life without ever seeming like a biography or veering too far into fiction. I really enjoyed like lovely book, and stayed with me days after I'd finished it. That's always a good sign in my mind!

So Quotable
"There was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow, let alone forever. To keep you from thinking, there was liquor, an ocean's worth at least, all the usual vices and plenty of rope to hang yourself with. But some of us, a very few in the end, bet on marriage against the odds. And though I didn't feel holy, exactly, I did feel that what we had was rare and true - and that we were safe in the marriage we had built and were building every day."

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