Thursday, 22 January 2015

Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Book cover of The Paris Wife by Paula McLainSo I know I'm not meant to be talking about this yet. The Paris Wife was the January pick for our online book club and it would have made more sense for me to discuss it here afterwards, otherwise the other eleven people will be subjected to my over-emotional and hysterical ramblings (you'll see) twice. That said, I really want to talk about it right now, having finished the book approximately twelve seconds ago, so I'll just have to try and come up with something intelligent to say for the 'meeting.'

Plot summary: Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a shy twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness when she meets Ernest Hemingway and is captivated by his energy, intensity and burning ambition. After a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for France. But glamorous Jazz Age Paris, full of artists and writers, fuelled by alcohol and gossip, is no place for family life and fidelity. Ernest and Hadley's marriage begins to founder, and the birth of a beloved son only drives them further apart. Then, at last, Ernest's ferocious literary endeavours bring him recognition - not least from a woman intent on making him her own.

Let me start by saying that there is absolutely no chance of any kind of objectivity in this review. I hate Ernest Hemingway and always have. I don't like his works, I don't like his attitude and I don't like his character. I've read a biography and a half, plus two of his novels and his every existence irritates me. If I could, I'd ban every single one of his novels... except he'd probably love the notoriety. The Paris Wife, however, forced me to look at exactly why I hate him so much. This isn't going to make for pretty reading.

My usual take on these novels is to replace the main characters names with standard non-famous-person names to see if the actual story and prose still hold up on their own. To the extent that that was possible here, it does seem to. It's written very well, providing a nice balance of 1930s Parisian atmosphere with dialogue and plot. The dialogue isn't stilted and I didn't have a problem keeping the many characters straight. If I were to replace 'Hadley' and 'Ernest' with 'Richard' and 'Carol,' I feel that it would still be an interesting book.

My only issue with the book itself was that every so often the narrative will change over to Hemingway's point of view. It's only for two pages or so, but it doesn't seem to be evenly spaced out and in my view it's not necessary. It reads as though those passages were shoved in later in an attempt to make the character seem less unlikeable. They're all about how confused he is and how guilty he feels, etc etc. I'm sorry but they're just not plausible. I've read enough about him and known someone enough like him to fully accept understand that they don't think like that. It's not in their nature.

He's real though. Paula McLain has done a truly excellent job in bringing Ernest Hemingway to life. Obviously we'll never meet him and therefore can't give her points for accuracy, but this version of him fits with everything I've read and seems to just jump off the page.

The problem with his lifelikeness (hey, that's a word - or it is while I'm frantically typing like a madwoman anyway), is that I was so damned furious when I'd finished the book. He walks over everybody, screws over his friends and gets annoyed when they object, and generally treats everybody like they should cater to his every whim. He seems to genuinely believe that he should be held to a better standard than everybody around him, regardless of how much they've gone out of their way to help him.

I had someone just like that in my personal life for a while and so this book got to me quite strongly. I was angry and upset with Hemingway for his behaviour, with Hadley for not being stronger and with myself for putting up with it. Sometimes it's hard to separate a book from your own experiences and feelings, but they can bring a semblance of clarity to what had previously confused you. In addition, it shows how beautifully this book is written that it brought my own experiences to the fore.

I'm not sure that Hadley herself was quite as fleshed out as she seemed a little flat and her behaviour was inconsistent. She was ridiculously stoic for a while to an extent that irritated me greatly -  of course he's going to move his Mistress into the house if you don't tell him that you object! It's fucking Hemingway. Instead she decides to be all martyred, but then goes mental and slaps him... and then goes back to martyrdom. Everyone reacts differently to these things, but I felt that her behaviour could have been smoothed out a little.

I'd actually like to sit here and rant about her complete lack of backbone - she lets Hemingway do far too much to her because she's scared she'll lose him if she complains. It really was profoundly irritating. Unfortunately I don't feel that I can fairly do that as I'm not sure how much of it was known to be actually true in real life, and it would hardly be the author's fault for accurately recreating it.

This book surprised me. I'd owned it since July 2012 and never once seriously considered opening it. In fact, I probably still wouldn't have, if it weren't for Bex and her book club. Personal feelings about Hemingway aside, this is a wonderful book. I knew the story already and it still didn't put me off from enjoying the real characters, the beautiful descriptions and somewhat moving story.

Read a much more objective review of The Paris Wife at Write Meg!


  1. I think I had a very similar response to this novel. I love and hate Hemingway in equal measure because, even though he is the biggest ass, his writing can be seriously stunning at times. I agree that this novel would be just as interesting if it wasn't based on fact.

  2. Why why whyyy is the perspective switching thing so big right now? I hate it.. it's jarring and reveals too much that is much better left a mystery until the main character reveals it!!


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