Rise and fall of an American marriage

  • Article by: ANDREA HOAG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2011 - 11:49 AM

A novel based on the marriage of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Even the most committed Ernest Hemingway fan must concede that the author couldn't have been an easy husband.

Between late-night carousing, a dogged writing schedule, the flirtations and full-on affairs, Hemingway would have driven the most patient woman to fits.

It is high time someone told the story of Hadley Hemingway, first spouse of the legendary author, and Paula McLain's novel, "The Paris Wife," does so. Told in Hadley's voice, it takes readers into the heart of the woman who was muse, helpmate and mother to the famous war correspondent's first son.

Sure, purists and scholars will be wary of a fictional reenactment of the marriage, but McLain's gangbusters writing forces doubts to dissolve by page three.

Hadley didn't stand a chance when she met the much-younger Hemingway at a Chicago house party. Her dreary St. Louis upbringing and the recent suicide of her father (irony: both families had their share of unnatural deaths) made her all the more susceptible to the attentions of the carnival-like man who changed her life instantly and forever.

The newly married duo set off for the 1920s Paris, which Hemingway chronicled in "A Moveable Feast," at a time when, he wrote, they were "young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight."

McLain draws upon a dizzying number of sources and her research is methodical, yet here's the best part: At the start, Hadley's voice smacks of the small-world primness of a sheltered young woman. As time goes by and Hemingway's influence grows, so, too, does Hadley's metamorphosis into the Paris wife who uses the distinctive vernacular of her husband. Of course, lovers always influence each other's parlance over time, but this detail, quite subtle, is masterful.

Your heart will break when Hadley travels by train from Paris to Lausanne and loses a valise full of her husband's early work, carbons and all.

"'What is it?' Ernest asked. 'Whatever it is, we'll get through it. Nothing can be that bad.'

"But it was. It was exactly that bad. I shook my head and cried harder. ... I didn't need to say more. ... He nodded, taking it all in, and I watched his eyes carefully, how they changed and steadied. ... He was trying to be brave for me."

Soon the once-small fissures in their relationship grow into large cracks. When a baby comes along far sooner than Papa Hemingway had hoped, their friend Ezra Pound offers a prescient admonition: "This baby will change everything."

Changes come, some of them heartbreaking. Thankfully, the downward slope of "The Paris Wife" creates the kind of out-of-body reading experience that dedicated book lovers yearn for, nearly as good as reading Hemingway for the first time -- and it doesn't get much better than that.

Andrea Hoag is a book critic whose reviews also appear in the Kansas City Star, where Ernest Hemingway was once a stringer.

  • THE PARIS WIFE

    By: Paula McLain.

    Publisher: Ballantine Books, 320 pages, $25.

    Review: Historical purists might cringe, but this novel seems to get into the heart and soul of Hemingway's first wife.

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