Hemingway and The Paris Wife

I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.    Ernest Hemingway,  A Moveable Feast

The Paris Wife book coverI was prepared not to like The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first of four marriages, to Hadley Richardson, written from Hadley’s point of view. Generally, I don’t like novelized versions of real people’s lives. The author has to work doubly hard for me to wholeheartedly enter her fictional world, because I can’t forget we’re seeing actual events filtered through her idiosyncratic speculations, which could be way off base.

I read The Paris Wife back-to-back with Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (which I read years ago) because I thought it would be interesting to see portrayed, in The Paris Wife, the “real” people who were models for Hemingway’s characters in The Sun Also Rises. (I hope you can follow this.) These two books I read while spending a few days in Key West with my family and visiting Hemingway’s former home, now a museum.

I found The Sun Also Rises just as tedious as when I read it as a baffled teenager. Aimless, self-absorbed people endlessly drinking in European bars and cafes, and then they go to a bullfight. I half-wished Hemingway would kill off the insufferable former war-time nurse, Lady Brett Ashley, but I knew better. I had to laugh when a note left by a previous reader fluttered out from between the pages of my library book: “Brett is a low-class whore.”

But this time, I tried to understand who these people were: the post World War I Lost Generation, stunned and alienated after the bloodiest war in history, surrounded by stratospheric, dissipated wealth alongside abject poverty. Despite my initial reservations, The Paris Wife was a good read and helped me see Hemingway and his first novel in a new light. Hemingway (and Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter ego in The Sun Also Rises) almost certainly had what we’d call today post-traumatic stress disorder. I hadn’t realized Hemingway was only 18 (about my son’s age) when he served as an ambulance driver in the war, saw horrific battles, and was seriously wounded. He then fell in love with a nurse a few years older than he (Catherine was her incarnation in A Farewell to Arms) who called off their marriage after she fell in love with an Italian officer.

This was Hemingway’s state of mind at 21 when he met Hadley, who was 28. I don’t mean to suggest his early adult experiences explain everything about Hemingway, because personalities and destinies are more complex than that. But Paula McLain is an excellent storyteller, and I trust her when she portrays a couple who were so right for each other at the time in their lives when they met, and then so wrong for each other a few years later, when both needed to move on.

(By the way, Paula lives in Cleveland, my hometown, and she wrote much of this book in a Starbucks there. Paula has also written a memoir about growing up in foster homes, Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses, which I look forward to reading.)

Here are some of my thoughts and impressions:

  • The Paris Wife didn’t fare well with many critics, but it is a bestseller. I think the more of a literary scholar and purist you are, the pickier you’ll be about how accurately McLain portrays motivations and personalities, how authentically and gracefully she finesses the dialog, and other matters. What I loved about her book was how richly she recreated the unconventional life led by an artistic, adventure-loving couple living in strange, unsettling times.
  • I appreciate the dynamic of the Hemingway-Hadley relationship McLain depicts. How the strong, self-effacing (and some would say stodgy and boring) Hadley appreciated, nurtured, and was subservient to the great artistic personality. But it wasn’t all one way. As Hadley wrote much later, Hemingway entered her life like an explosion and liberated her from what could have been a circumscribed, unrealized life. For a time, there was deep, genuine love between the two, and even though the marriage broke up, the trajectory of Hadley’s life was forever altered.
  • Marriages that end the way the first Hemingway marriage did are never pretty, but I think the ending of this marriage was especially nasty and torturous for Hadley. Pauline Pfeiffer, Vogue writer and wife #2, literally made my skin crawl. At the end of his life, Hemingway wrote an apology to Hadley, which he included in A Moveable Feast, a memoir in which he lovingly recalls his early years with Hadley. There has been more than one edition of A Moveable Feast, and I find it amusing that the edition published by one of the descendents of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer children removed the apology.
The Hemingway home, Key West
Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home

After Hemingway married Pauline, they moved to Key West. Visiting their former Spanish colonial home, I loved the wraparound balcony on the second floor and the tall, shuttered windows that let in the sea breezes, but there was an air of sadness and neglect about the place.

After his marriage to Pauline ended, Hemingway moved to Cuba, where he married journalist Martha Gellhorn. That marriage ended, too, and he spent his last years married to Mary Welsh in Idaho.

When my husband and son went snorkeling off the coast of Key West, their guide pointed out four posts several miles out. At one time, Hemingway’s “stilt” house, or fishing shack, sat atop these posts, where he’d spend days in solitude, writing. The writing life, Hemingway once wrote, is a lonely life.

Butterfly on blossom

Key West sunset
Key West sunset

If you’ve read The Paris Wife and want to comment, or if you have thoughts about Ernest Hemingway, please add them to the comments below.