The longsuffering spouse who comes between a driven man and his important work is a tension-building tool, but rarely a rounded character herself. The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s daring fictionalization of Ernest Hemingway’s left-bank years from the perspective of his frumpy first wife, Hadley Richardson, attempts to correct that imbalance, writing the first of the four Hemingway helpmates with a naïveté that’s sometimes confounding, but often touching.
As a raw, behind-the-scenes extra feature to Hemingway’s posthumous memoir A Movable Feast, The Paris Wife has a built-in hook, but it takes its time in baiting it, devoting the book’s early going to the couple’s chaste, Abelard-and-Heloise-style correspondence. The setup is the book’s weakest section, forcing McLain to perform long, sometimes cringe-inducing Hemingway impressions, whereas later, he can be drowned out a bit in the din of post-war tastemakers and charming poetasters.
In the book’s engrossing middle, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald provide the Hemingways’ entrée to the literary scene, but they also expose the divide between the hopelessly square, Henry James-reading Richardson and the already larger-than-life Hemingway, whose legend would soon outpace him, and whose arrogance would eventually alienate everyone who gave him a leg up. Richardson succinctly sums up the philosophy of her new friends with the dictum “Ruin as many lives as you want, what’s unacceptable is bourgeois values.” By the time she becomes inconveniently pregnant and loses Hemingway’s notebooks, the already-frayed relationship has begun to unravel, and before long, her increasingly embittered, egocentric husband edits her out of his fiction and then his life to make room for slim sophisticate Pauline Pfeiffer.
Over the course of the couple’s journey from Chicago to Paris to Spain, McLain provides glimpses of what would become future short stories like “Up In Michigan,” “A Very Short Story,” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” But The Paris Wife is less a game of Spot The Literary Reference than an examination of Hemingway’s talent for flaying a memory to the bone before crafting something sturdier out of it. The strengths of The Paris Wife, too, are revealed as its characters are stripped of security, happiness, and purpose, until a furtive glance or a weighty pause is all that’s required to send them careering into someone else’s arms, or back into the bottle.