"The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain

This book is about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife. For many of us, she is largely unknown, a woman at the fringes of literary history. Why did Author Paula Mclain decide to write a novel about her, and why did you choose THE PARIS WIFE as the title?

From McLain: I first came to know Hadley in the pages of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's remarkable memoir of his years in Paris. His rpaula-mclain.jpgeminiscences of Hadley were so moving that I decided to seek out biographies of her life—and that's when I knew what I'd found something special. Her voice and the arc of her life were riveting. She's the perfect person to show us a side of Hemingway we've never seen before—tender, vulnerable, and very human—but she's also an extraordinary person in her own right.
As for the book's title, although to many Hadley might simply appear to be Hemingway's "Paris wife"—the way Pauline Pfeiffer became known as his "Key West wife" and Martha Gelhorn as his "Spanish Civil War wife"—Hadley was actually fundamental to the rest of his life and career. He couldn't have become the writer we know now without her influence.

Paula McLain, received an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan and has been a resident of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She is the author of two collections of poetry, as well as a memoir, Like Family, and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride. She lives in Cleveland with her family. 

For more (and credit as above is para-phrased), click here Paula McLain.

Biography of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in his grandfathers house, on the 21st of July 1899 in Oak Park, Chicago, Il.  He was the second of six children.  And there was nothing simple or easy about what followed.  ....... 

For more information on his life (great information, by the way), click on Ernest Hemingway.  

A Novel of Hemingway’s First Marriage



By Paula McLain

320 pp. Ballantine Books. $25.

No one ever accused Ernest Hemingway of creating memorable women characters — except perhaps in his posthumously published Paris memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” where he idealizes his first wife, Hadley Richardson, as the alter ego who shared with him the good old days before fame and fortune and another woman wrecked it all.

Hadley Richardson now comes into her own, sort of, as the long-suffering wife in Paula McLain’s stylish new novel. Narrated largely from Hadley’s point of view, “The Paris Wife” smoothly chronicles her five-year marriage to the novelist, most of which was spent in Paris among aspiring writers when, as McClain’s Hadley recalls, “we were beautifully blurred and happy.” This is her own movable feast: Paris was fresh, the wine was flowing and “there was only today to throw yourself into without thinking about tomorrow.”

Though initially disgusted by the expatriate community, which, as the fictional Hadley remembers, “preened and talked rot and drank themselves sick,” Hemingway was ineluctably drawn into its orbit — and then into the orbit of the rich, who “had better days and freer nights. They brought the sun with them and made the tides move.” No one does this better than chic Pauline Pfeiffer, a wealthy Midwesterner who works for Vogue, wears “a coat made of hundreds of chipmunk skins sewn painfully together” and sets her cap for Ernest. “Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything,” Hadley warns herself, after the fact.

There’s a certain inevitability, then, about what happens in “The Paris Wife.” Based on letters and biographies, and on Hemingway’s own ample recollections of Paris, the novel proceeds by the book — all the books, in fact, about Paris in the 1920s, including those by Hemingway — and thus bumps against the usual expatriate suspects, like Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound, who, as Hadley almost apologetically explains, “were or would soon become giants in the field of arts and letters, but we weren’t aware of this at the time.”

Livelier and fresher is the reconstruction of Hadley’s youth. The migraine-ridden daughter of a suffrage-minded mother and an alcoholic father who had committed suicide, Hadley is a sheltered young woman from St. Louis who plays Rachmaninoff on the piano while yearning to break free of the staid “Victorian manners keeping everything safe and reliable.” Hemingway is just the ticket. Though eight years her junior, he is an ambitious, proud fledgling journalist intending to be a great writer. “There wasn’t any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness,” Hadley notes with cloying naïveté. The couple meet in Chicago, soon marry and, on the advice of Sherwood Anderson, bolt the monotonous Midwest for adventure, paid for partially by Hadley’s inheritance, in the City of Light.

But the city soon turns gray and rainy. Forlorn whenever Ernest leaves her, Hadley tries to keep him from going to Smyrna to cover the Greco-Turkish war. “I was asking him to choose me over his work,” she acknowledges. His refusal signals the beginning of the end. Two months later, when Ernest is covering the peace conference in Lausanne, Hadley plans to meet him there and, for a surprise, to bring him all his manuscripts, including carbon copies and a novel-in-progress. She packs them into a small suitcase, then somehow manages to lose the bag on the train.

Fighting him with the only weapon at her disposal — passive aggression — she has also forgotten to bring her birth control. Hadley wants a child; Ernest does not. “What was really unacceptable were bourgeois values, wanting something small and staid and predictable, like one true love, or a child,” she says without affect. “I was supposed to have my own ideas and ambitions and be incredibly hungry for experience and newness of every variety. But I wasn’t hungry; I was content.”

In Pamplona, Hadley identifies with the bulls. “My body was doing what it was meant to do,” the now pregnant Hadley reflects, “and these animals, they were living out their destinies too.” Of course, as we know all too well, Hadley isn’t any more insulated from disaster than the animals in the ring, though she, like Hemingway, again blames the rich Americans who ride into Pamplona in chauffeured limousines — and who “spoil everything.”

What to do? Eat, drink and not think about tomorrow, à la Hemingway — or at least according to a ravenous Hadley, now a Hemingway character manqué. “I found I was hungry,” she says when they settle into a cafe after watching a man being gored at a bullfight, “and that it all tasted very good to me.” We recall the physically damaged Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises,” who takes refuge in food and alcohol and in acting hard-boiled but cries himself to sleep at night. As Jake’s female counterpart, the symbolically impotent and resolutely unmodern Hadley lulls herself for a short time into a willful state of denial while her writer husband shapes “disaster and human messiness” into “something that would last forever.” In other words, she rationalizes her grief by romanticizing Hemingway’s talent.

While McLain’s portrait of this impossible marriage can be harrowing, it can also be frustrating, for Hadley rarely emerges from her wistful cocoon. And though McLain’s Hemingway declares his Paris wife “better and finer than the rest of us” — and McLain seems in part to agree — the praise sounds portentously like Nick Carraway’s salute to Jay Gatsby. McLain has transformed Hadley into a Mrs. Gatsby not because Hadley is rich or powerful or corrupt but because she is the opposite of all these things. And that means she is hardly more than a stereotype, alas, caught in a world not of her own making.

Brenda Wineapple’s most recent book is “White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.”

  1. In many ways, Hadley's girlhood in St. Louis was a difficult and repressive experience. How do her early years prepare her to meet and fall in love with Ernest? What does life with Ernest offer her that she hasn't encountered before? What are the risks?
  2. Hadley and Ernest don't get a lot of encouragement from their friends and family when they decided to marry. What seems to draw the two together? What are some of the strengths of their initial attraction and partnership? The challenges?
  3. The Ernest Hemingway we meet in THE PARIS WIFE—through Hadley's eyes—is in many ways different from the ways we imagine him when faced with the largeness of his later persona. What do you see as his character strengths? Can you see what Hadley saw in him?
  4. The Hemingways spontaneously opt for Paris over Rome when the get key advice from Sherwood Anderson. What was life like for them when they first arrived? How did Hadley's initial feelings about Paris differ from Ernest's and why?
  5. Throughout THE PARIS WIFE, Hadley refers to herself as "Victorian" as opposed to "modern." What are some of the ways she doesn't feel like she fits into life in bohemian Paris? How does this impact her relationship with Ernest? Her self-esteem? What are some of the ways Hadley's "old-fashioned" quality can be seen as a strength and not a weakness? 
  6. For remaining questions, click here. "Paris Wife" Questions for Book Clubs