The old saying goes, "Behind every great man is a woman." Behind iconic writer Ernest Hemingway, there were several. But none had such influence as his first wife, Hadley Richardson.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Richardson at 28 is on her way to becoming a spinster. But one fortuitous night in Chicago, she meets Ernest Hemingway, then a 20-year-old struggling writer with big dreams and even bigger appetites. Although educated, Hadley is far from worldly, and the enigmatic young writer intrigues her immediately, despite warnings from a close mutual friend. Warnings be damned. The two are married when she's 29 and he's 21.
Ernest is always yearning for the most out of life and wants to get back to Europe. He has spent some time in Italy during the war (his first doomed love affair still haunts him) and is desperate to return. A compromise is made, and at the suggestion of another writer friend, he and his new wife set sail for Paris and quickly go about the business of getting acquainted with all that the City of Light has to offer. "It's so beautiful here it hurts," Ernest says of Paris. His days are filled with working on his stories, and lunches with other writers such as Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. It's a little more of an adjustment for Hadley. As his wife, she is not only his companion but also his trusted first reader and stalwart cheerleader. It's not easy living with someone whose ambitions are "fierce and all encompassing. He had writing the way some other people had religion…"
For Hadley, Paris is not such an invigorating experience at first. She feels less sophisticated than the other artists' wives ("If the women in Paris were peacocks, I was a garden-variety hen.") Often, Ernest's newspaper assignments will take him away from Paris for weeks at a time. These separations are daunting for Hadley, especially after the birth of their first child, John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway, nicknamed "Bumby" for short. As happy a time as this is for the couple, in many ways it's the beginning of the end. The pressures of not only supporting a wife but now a family, and the feeling that he is just about to break through if he can only write without distraction, causes great stress in the marriage. And when his eye wanders over to her close friend, it all but seals the fate of their union.
Much like Nancy Horan's LOVING FRANK did for Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife, Mamah Cheney, THE PARIS WIFE not only shows us the woman behind the iconic man, but also demystifies the man himself, giving the reader a living, breathing portrait of Ernest Hemingway, as well as the steadfast wife who was the only one of his three wives who he remained in touch with throughout the rest of his life. Hadley's influence and support cannot be undervalued. Without her, could he have written A MOVEABLE FEAST, which then led to the Nick Adams stories and the rest of his classic canon? After reading Paula McLain's engrossing novel, it's hard to think of Hemingway without then thinking of Hadley. The reader is not only treated to a bird's-eye view into the Paris of the so-called "Lost Generation," but also to exactly why Hadley fell so deeply in love with Hemingway.
It is McLain's detailed and affectionate retelling of this time gone by that will delight and charm readers of all genres.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on March 28, 2011
The Paris Wife