All right, guys and gals, let's dive into another book review!
The Paris Wife
by Paula McLain
Ballantine Books, 2011
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Debbi Honorof
Those of you who know me can probably already see how this review is going to play out in your head. I have no problem stating that, in general, literary fiction and women's lit do absolutely nothing for me; The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is both. McLain tells the true story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife, and that makes all the difference.
Make no mistake: The Paris Wife, from a writing and storytelling standpoint, is not so different from any other women's lit book you'd pick up off the shelf. McLain's style is concise, straightforward, and eminently readable, and her tale is one of a small-town girl who falls in love with a very unusual man, marries him, and eventually divorces him when their relationship sours. Hadley herself is not a fascinating protagonist by any means, but her unique relationship with Ernest Hemingway gives readers a chance to meet the man through a biased but fair observer.
As the title suggests, The Paris Wife is a novel that centers on Ernest and Hadley's time in Paris in the early 1920s. The actual meat and potatoes of the plot are nothing to write home about. Hadley spends most of the novel walking, swimming, making love, dining with friends, or fighting with her husband. McLain throws a curveball towards the end in the form of an affair that very nearly turns into a nontraditional marriage, but ruins the surprise somewhat by setting this turn of events up in the prologue. To put it succinctly, if Hadley had to carry this book on her own - despite McLain's reasonable approximation of her psyche and voice, and meticulous attention to factual detail - it would be a lost cause.
Ernest Hemingway's character, however, infuses the book with a spark that helps carry it from beginning to end. Even though it would be very easy to cast Ernest as either an immortal artist who was far too good for Hadley or an irredeemable scumbag who cheated on his wife, McLain instead opts for a middle path. In The Paris Wife, Ernest usually means well, but he can be petty, mean-tempered, selfish, and egotistical. At the same time, he is loving, generous, well-meaning, and adventurous. Throughout all of his violent mood swings and poor life choices, McLain maintains - probably correctly - that his unusual lifestyle was critical to his value as an artist. Even if Hadley had been happier if Ernest had been a well-adjusted individual, the world would have been poorer for it. Tragedy breeds great art.
The book's biggest issue, aside from its occasionally glacial pacing and bog-standard writing style, is that there's not much reason to read this book instead of an actual Ernest Hemingway novel. Much of Hemingway's work is somewhat autobiographical, and, with no offense intended to McLain, Hemingway's work was much more ambitious. Even so, The Paris Wife is fundamentally a good book, its only real crime being that it invites comparison to much better ones.
For female readers who want a lightweight introduction to the Hemingway canon, The Paris Wife is probably as good a place to start as any. Those who are fearless, however, would be wiser to challenge themselves a bit and start with something like Death in the Afternoon, which covers some of the same subject matter with a writing style that will either make you swoon with joy or tear your hair out with frustration. Only one way to find out!