Before he was Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, the big game-hunting, hard-drinking, womanizing giant of American letters, he was an unknown writer striving for the almost mythical bigness he would later attain. And before she became The First Mrs. Hemingway, an often skimmed-over footnote in the writer’s biography, she was Hadley Richardson, a St. Louis woman who played the piano, swam like a fish, and always shot from the hip.
In this fictionalized memoir, Paula McLain extrapolates from letters, books, and other sources a complex inner life for Hadley, who met Hemingway in 1920, married him in 1921, and divorced him in 1927. Along the way, she took some enormous chances on him, recognizing early his tremendous talent, and agreeing to live in near-poverty so he could nurture his art. She funds their move to Paris, where they come into the orbit of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, and later the wealthy and dissolute expatriates who populate Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises.
On the surface, Hadley appears very much the meek and adoring wife, but there’s far more to her in The Paris Wife. She’s not an artist like Gertrude Stein or glamorous like Lady Duff Twysden (upon whom the Sun Also Rises character Brett Ashley was based) or dramatic like Zelda Fitzgerald. Hadley is made of sturdier stuff than the Jazz Age women who make up her circle, but if she seems stodgy by comparison, she also seems possessed of a self-knowledge and honesty that they lack. She may stand by her man, but McLain’s Hadley knows her own mind - and her own limits.
In the first chapter, Hadley says, “I don’t want to say, Keep watch for the girl who will come along and ruin everything, but she’s coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat.” When she shows up, in the form of Pauline Pfeiffer (who would become the second Mrs. Hemingway), Hadley draws upon the kind of stoic grace and resilience that would make a Hemingway hero jealous. Hadley may be shockingly ordinary, especially compared to Hemingway’s Paris friends, but she’s never dull.
McLain echoes Hemingway’s forthright dialogue and economical use of language throughout the novel. It’s not subtle, but it’s elegantly done and a welcoming touchstone. However, it’s Hadley’s voice that’s front and center and direct, with a cadence that serves as a constant reminder that she was the woman who was there at the beginning, when Hemingway became Hemingway. “I got the very best of him,” she says near the book’s end. “We got the best of each other.”
The posthumous Hemingway writings collected in A Moveable Feast deal with his years in Paris with Hadley and their circle of friends. After you finish The Paris Wife, you may be inspired to revisit this classic or to experience it for the first time.