Paula McLain, ‘The Paris Wife’ – a critique

Paula McLain, The Paris Wife (Virago Press, 2012, paperback; first published 2011)


Hadley and Ernest on their wedding day, 1921

Hadley and Ernest on their wedding day, 1921

The Paris Wife is a fictionalised account of the life of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway from the time they first met in 1920 to their separation and divorce in 1926.  Most of that time they spent in Paris, where they lived on Hadley’s small trust fund and the erratic sums Ernest was paid for his journalism.

The first 90 pages cover the period before they reached Paris, and this section is pretty heavy going.  Hadley is presented as unworldly, gauche, socially inept and lacking in confidence.  She’d had a sickly childhood in which she had some damaging experiences: accidents, the death of a sister, her father’s suicide in 1903; as a consequence her mother over-protected her and she became painfully shy.  Soon after her mother died in 1920 Hadley went to visit her old college room-mate in Chicago and there met the dashing Ernest – he was 21, she was 28, but immature.

The prose is often both stodgy and breathlessly romantic to the point of cliché; here’s how their meeting is described –

The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes …It’s October 1920 and jazz is everywhere.  I don’t know any jazz, so I’m playing Rachmaninoff.  I can feel a flush beginning in my cheeks from the hard cider my dear pal Kate Smith has stuffed down me so I’ll relax.  I’m getting there, second by second.

To paraphrase the critique of Mozart’s music in the film Amadeus, too many words.  And where else would a flush begin but in the cheeks?

Hadley and Ernest, winter 1922

Hadley and Ernest, winter 1922

In the next chapter this ham-fisted establishment of character continues:

I was only twenty-eight, and yet I’d been living like a spinster on the second floor of my older sister Fonnie’s house…Somehow I’d gotten stuck along the way…and I didn’t know how to free myself exactly.

Redundant or unnecessary adverbials and adjectives and intrusive biographical research details clog the narrative.  When we get to the whirlwind romance the register becomes more romantic and slushy.  They dance:

Ernest Hemingway was still very much a stranger to me, but he seemed to do happiness all the way up and through.  There wasn’t any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness.  His eyes sparked all over everything, all over me as he leaned back on his heel and spun me toward him.

‘Aliveness’?  Again there’s that intensifying ‘very’,  which McLain overuses.  Although she’s trying to convey the awkward frumpishness and naivety of Hadley Richardson here, (‘I was closer to a Victorian holdout than a flapper’ she thinks, whatever a ‘holdout’ is, as she forlornly regards all his fashionable admirers at the party), and contrast it with Ernest’s suave confidence and dash, the effect is more embarrassing than electrifying.  His seduction of her and her grateful adoration of him comes across as borderline creepy:

‘I’ll never lie to you,’ I said.

He nodded into my hair.  ‘Let’s always tell each other the truth.  We can choose that, can’t we?’

McLain is partial to these awkward foreshadowings of the divorce and Ernest’s betrayal of Hadley with the woman she thought was her friend, Pauline Pfeiffer.  When she tells her friend Kate that she and Ernest are engaged, this is the response:

‘You’re going to regret this.  You know you will.  He’s so young and impulsive.’

‘And I’m what?  A sedate little spinster?’

‘No, just naive.  You give him too much credit.’

Hadley loses her virginity to Ernest.  Afterwards he tells her he needs her to be able to write, and he hopes they’ll grow old together:

‘I’d love to look like you,’ I said. ‘I’d love to be you.’

I’d never said anything truer.  I’d gladly have climbed out of my skin and into his that night, because I believed that was what love meant.  Hadn’t I just felt us collapsing into one another, until there was no difference between us?

It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking.  I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to.  He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him.  But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me.  And come back when he wanted to.

There’s some psychological insight here, but again there’s an awkward blend of intelligent perception and adolescent romanticism, with an extra element of self-pity.  The fact that Ernest’s character is always seen only from Hadley’s perspective results in a sense that her view of him is distorted by what subsequently happened, while her own role is rose-tinted and innocent.  As a consequence he becomes something of a priapic villain to her quivering ingénue victim.

Before this piece becomes too long let’s deal rapidly with the rest of the book.  The Paris section is much more readable, but even this is badly flawed.  There’s a constant repetition of scenes of boozing, bacchanalia laced through with Hadley’s growing estrangement from Ernest and his circle as he becomes more successful in his literary career, and less dependant on her.  One feels pity for her, but also that Hadley almost willed her own rejection.  And the self-deprecatory image McLain presents of Hadley as a sweet innocent abroad is hard to reconcile with the way she’s shown boozing with the fast set and alone with Ernest and apparently enjoying getting drunk and reckless.

The snobbish sense of superiority Ernest emanates is also shared by Hadley; he scorns the expatriates of Paris who ‘preened and talked rot and drank themselves sick.  Ernest felt disgusted by them.’  Then he and Hadley drink until they both vomit.

There are some vivid portraits of inter-war Paris – Poiret and Chanel couture, shingle-bob hairstyles, painted nails and decadence (‘but that wasn’t me’, Hadley ruefully adds) – but they never fully come to life, and retain a whiff of library research.

Paula McLain (photo from Random House website)

Paula McLain (photo from Random House website)

McLain does give a clear sense of Ernest’s devotion to developing the pared-down literary technique and style of ‘omission’ for which he became famous; she’s also good at the painful deterioration in the marital relationship brought to a head by Hadley’s losing all of Ernest’s manuscripts in a valise on a train, then on her telling him she’d fallen pregnant.  He wasn’t ready to be a parent, and could never trust her again.   I’ve written about this in my previous few posts on Hemingway.

Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and John Quinn outside Pound's Paris studio in Rue des Champs, 1923

Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and John Quinn outside Pound’s Paris studio in Rue des Champs, 1923

There are some successful scenes with the modernist innovators of Paris in the twenties: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald and others; I wrote about these, too, in my recent pieces on Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.  Some, however, come across as literary tourism.

Ultimately, then, I wouldn’t recommend this novel for anyone looking for insight into the characters of Hadley or Ernest Hemingway, or for a sense of what Paris in the twenties was really like; this can be found more vividly and entertainingly in Hemingway’s memoir.  The one aspect missing from A Moveable Feast is what The Paris Wife does provide: Hadley’s deep pain and bitterness at the shameful way that Ernest succumbed to Pauline’s single-minded pursuit of him.

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway,Paris,1927

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, Paris,1927

Pauline had befriended her, if this account is accurate, with half a mind to steal him away from her dowdy friend.  Hadley didn’t stand a chance against this sleek otter – Pauline is more chic, sophisticated and intelligent.  She can talk to Ernest on equal terms about literature; her praise of his work (he always needed to be flattered) was more valuable to him because she had a far more literary sensibility than dear, devoted Hadley.  Pauline’s nickname for her is ‘Dulla’ – a cruelty to which Hadley at first seems unaware.

In none of these texts that I’ve examined over the past few weeks does Ernest emerge as anything other than a first-class louse.  But one capable of writing beautiful, lucid prose.

Virago edition of 'The Paris Wife' (Waterstones website)cover photo of the novel: Waterstones website; all pictures unless otherwise stated from the public domain via WikiCommons.

3 thoughts on “Paula McLain, ‘The Paris Wife’ – a critique

  1. UPDATE FROM 1/9/2019

    We may at the moment not have “lettuce prey” but, given the sad news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has run out of money and stopped “routine” inspections of the American supply, we may soon have PREDATOR LETTUCE attacking the population.

    Occurs to me that Vladimir Putin and his political mention, Alexander Dugin, must be tickled pink about this.

  2. Coming back to this in even more parlous times than last January.

    The 1st person here is painful to read. Risky choice in the best of times but the reference to jazz… Ugh. It is always disappointing when an intriguing premise like this is bungled. I wonder how it sold. It has the usual title of this sort of book:

    * The Paris Wife
    * The Cooks’s Daughter
    * The Ragseller’s Ex-Daughter In Law’s Cat : )

    • Great word, ‘parlous’. Just had to check, and my guess was right – it does derive from ‘perilous’. As for titles: what about all those ‘girls’? Gone, Dragon Tattoo, etc.

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