There’s a line in A Moveable Feast that has always stayed with me. Written at the end of his life about his early years in Paris, Hemingway reflects on his first marriage to Hadley Richardson, saying, “When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” Of course, when he saw his wife standing by the tracks, he’d already started up with the soon-to-be second Mrs. Hemingway, and when he wrote the memoir, he was on wife number four. Still, I’ve always found that line—and the way he writes about those days with such tenderness—to be so telling of his feelings for Hadley. It should come as no surprise, then, how much I love Paula McLain’s novel of Ernest and Hadley’s courtship and marriage, The Paris Wife. Hemingway Week wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t take a moment to gush about it.
The Paris Wife dives into the life of Hadley, who at twenty-eight considers herself a spinster (gotta love the 1920s!) until she meets the young and handsome Ernest Hemingway in Chicago. A twenty-one-year-old war hero with hopes of becoming a great writer, Hemingway sweeps Hadley into a whirlwind courtship that sees them married within the year. Soon, the newlyweds find themselves living in Paris as members of the “Lost Generation,” surrounded by a way of life starkly different from their Midwestern roots. While fiercely in love, the odds are stacked against the Hemingways as Ernest strives to start his career in a circle fueled with flowing liquor, raucous escapades, and casual infidelities. And then along comes Pauline Pfeiffer, who cozies up to Hadley as a dear friend, all the while keeping her eye on Ernest and making herself a permanent, destructive place in the marriage.
The beauty of the Hemingways’ time in Paris is that they were just two people in love, suddenly immersed in an extraordinary life. Hemingway was not yet Ernest Hemingway: Acclaimed Writer, but Ernest Hemingway: Young Man with a Head Full of Dreams. The beauty of The Paris Wife is that it captures all of that, and it gives Hadley a voice. Through this richly told novel, we can see just why they fell in love with each other, and how deeply. We get caught up in the excitement of this young husband and father on the verge of something great, feel the thrill of rubbing elbows with the Fitzgeralds and Ezra Pound, and experience the utter angst and heartbreak of watching a marriage founded on love all fall apart. Paula McLain does an outstanding job of reminding us that these two people at the center of so much fame and history and a notoriously dissolved marriage are just that—two people. The Paris Wife is a love story that we know will not end with a happily-ever-after for the couple, but one that is engrossing, emotional, and beautiful just the same.
We’ve heard so much about Hemingway, his life, and his marriages, but The Paris Wife opens the doors with a fresh perspective, blending research and imagination to create a compelling inside look that’s impossible to put down. If you haven’t read this novel, you’re in for a wonderful treat. If you have read it, it’s the kind of book that only gets better with time.