Celebitchy Book Club: ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain

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Bedhead’s take (SPOILERS):
The Paris Wife is a bit of historial fiction based upon the life of literary great Ernest Hemingway’s starter wife, Hadley Richardson. I relished the character pr0n of this book; but by the end, I had trouble understanding the actions of the titular character. I was aware of Hemingway’s status as a womanizing d-bag, and author Paula McClain only convinced me further. The book starts in 1920 where Hadley meets Ernest in Chicago. They instantly hit it off. Hem immediately spatters her with letters, sometimes several times per day. Hadley is flattered that someone as good looking and charismatic as Hem would fall for her, a relative old maid who lives with her sister: “I was 29, feeling almost obsolete, but Ernest was 21 and white hot with life. He was a light-footed lad on a Grecian urn chasing truth and beauty. Where did I fit in exactly?” Exactly.

The book is a well-researched account of how two young people married and fell apart. One can blame outside influences, but I think they ignored early warning signs and had different expectations for marriage. From the onset, we know they are both very damaged. Hem is an aspiring writer who sustained physical and emotional injuries in WWI. Hadley is recovering from losing her father to suicide and the death of her mother. Hem and Hadley cling to each other, and he seems dependent on her approval of his writing while she overlooks all of his character flaws. Even Ernest’s proposal seemed disconcerting. While discussing his plans to move to Rome, he merely drops a line into a letter that reads, “You can come along … as wife?

The setting moves to Paris where the newlyweds enjoy the company of the literary set: Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and the Fitzgeralds. They live a splashy social life but are financially modest. Hadley’s small trust fund supports them while Ernest toils away. Here’s where the facts become muddled because we really have no idea what happened behind closed doors. The author tells us how Hem told Hadley, “I can do anything if I have you with me … I think I can write a book.” Then there’s the semi-creepy implication of Hadley cutting her hair while Hem’s grew out because, as he says, “Before you know it we’ll look just the same, we’ll be the same guy.” By the end, it’s obvious Hem and Hadley wanted different things. They had spent so long trying to be the same person that Hadley seems genuinely surprised … when all the signs of Hem’s cheating were obvious to everyone else.

I could identify with Hadley’s “trapped” feeling until about 3/4 through the book. By then it was clear to every other character how Ernest was banging anything with a skirt who flattered him. Then Hadley practically had to be telegrammed that Ernest was involved with her BFF, Pauline. Hadley stuck around until Hem asked for a divorce, and she still wanted to give things 6 more months. Hadley had circumstances in her early life that lent her a “meek” demeanor, but she let Hem use and abuse her. Her identity was solely that of wife (and later as mother), and she was far too trusting. In the company of Ernest, Hadley had also became a boisterous talker and drinker, and she loved her new personality. I think Hadley also put up with a lot of Hem’s sh-t because of her father’s suicide.

One other thing I didn’t enjoy about the book were the parts where Ernest took over the narrative. I understand that one of these interludes was useful to inform the audience that, indeed, Hem was cheating on Hadley very early in their marriage. Still I found that most of these parts were written in a confusing, rambling manner, and I had to resist the urge to skim the interludes altogether.

Ultimately Hadley got her happy ending, and we all know what happened to Ernest. Things seemed a bit too nicely wrapped up at the end, but by then, I was ready for the book to be over. I enjoyed much of it, but I was so ready to move on from Hem and Hadley’s marriage.

Note by Celebitchy: I enjoyed this book and would recommend it, but it was hard to take at times. The portrait of a marriage’s dissolution seemed realistic to me, as did the dialogue. Like Bedhead, I found it frustrating that Hadley didn’t leave Ernest or tell him where to go, but she lacked power in the marriage and she waited to take stock of the situation. This seemed practical to me, and I understood Hadley’s decision. Hadley explained her choice in what I thought was one of the most telling passages in the book. “I felt utterly sick and conspired against… What could I do or say? He might ultimately fall out of love with Pauline and come fully back to me – that was still possible – but nothing was in my control. If I gave him an ultimatum and said she couldn’t stay, I would lose him. If I got hysterical and made public scenes, it would just give him an excuse to leave me. All that was left for me was a terrible kind of paralysis, this waiting game, this heartbreak game.

Note By Kaiser: I just finished this last night, and it was one of those books where I would have gotten bogged down and stopped reading if I didn’t “need” to finish it for the book club. I got bogged down with the section in Spain with all of the bullfighting and by the time that Hemingway wrote the first draft for The Sun Also Rises, I was pretty much over it. I liked Hadley a lot, and I think she was upfront about what she wanted from life (a husband, a family, to support Hemingway financially and emotionally). What I found particularly interesting is that Hemingway got exactly what he wanted – a motherly figure who supported him unconditionally and barely imposed on him -and then he didn’t want it. Part of that was Hem simply “growing up” and outgrowing the marriage. He didn’t know who he was when he married Hadley and through their marriage, he grew into the man/writer we know now, but it felt like she barely changed at all. I do think that the marriage was never going to work and Hadley might have been dumb or naive to not “get” that immediately. But I also think the marriage was probably her bravest act, her boldest move in what had been a completely milquetoast existence up until that point. I was pleased with the way Hadley’s life turned out post-Hem, though – she remarried several years later and it seemed like her second marriage was a lot happier than her first, so it’s good that she found some kind of happy ending too.

Our next selection will be What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. We’ll be covering it January 5th!

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31 Responses to “Celebitchy Book Club: ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain”

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  1. STOPGOOP says:

    Thanks for the review, CB! I agree about the book being both enjoyable and hard to take. I was downright upset about Hem falling in love with Hadley’s “best friend,” and found her cluelessness/blind trust both frustrating and sympathetic. I was happy at her resolution in the end, but the book stuck with me afterward, and it was the marriage dissolution/heartbreak that stuck in my mind, not Had’s “happy ending.”

    • Esmom says:

      Agree that that heartbreak sticks with you, and was foreshadowed all along, too, I think. I just never had a good feeling about those two, he always had the upper hand emotionally and that kind of imbalance just isn’t healthy.

      I enjoyed the book and didn’t get too bogged down, except maybe in the bullfighting section, too. If you liked this one, you might also like Loving Frank, about Frank Lloyd Wright and his lover Mamah Cheney. Crazy story, even crazier that it too was based on actual events.

      Great choice for the next book, too, cool concept. I have enjoyed all of the selections so far and think the book club is a great idea.

    • Celebitchy says:

      Stopgoop did you notice when Pauline started SWFing Hadley right before she got with Ernest, while they were on vacation? That creeped me out so much, she was such a manipulative bitch, she wanted what Hadley had.

      Esmom I agree about the foreshadowing, I thought that was very well done too. I will check out Loving Frank, that is a good suggestion! I have visited several of his houses. He had a ton of kids, right? I need to check out his wiki. -ok checked out his wiki, I had been to his house in Oak Park with all the features for the kids but didn’t remember that he was a philanderer. (They left that out of the tour probably, ha!) Nice recommendation, thanks.

      -edit- my mom was on that tour too and she just told me that they did include the story of his mistress, and how he moved out of the house into a cottage he built there.

      • Kaiser says:

        The Pauline stuff was the worst – the fact that Pauline was still writing letters to Hadley upset me so much.

      • Celebitchy says:

        Oh I forgot about that, she was awful! Like when she called them her cherishables as if they were her pets or something? And how she just expected Hadley to hang out with her afterwards? Evil.

      • Esmom says:

        CB (fangirling at actually getting a reply from you): I just did the Oak Park house tour this summer with my kids — I’d been dying to ever since reading Loving Frank. Mamah’s house (which is how she first met FLW) is right nearby so I made our group detour over to see it.

        If you plan to read Loving Frank, don’t read any more about their relationship or the book might not be as powerful. I didn’t know the details of their relationship and was floored by the events that occurred, which proved that life can be much stranger than fiction for sure.

        Sorry to get us so far off track on today’s book selection — although the parallels between FLW and Hemingway are striking, even the fact that both were from Oak Park!

      • Simmie says:

        I would enthusiastically second the suggestion of Loving Frank. I read it a few years back and thinking about it still gives me Feelings. It’s also a much better book than The Paris Wife. The writing is more sophisticated and characters are better developed. I found myself annoyed with everyone in The Paris Wife, but in Loving Frank the complexities are better drawn which makes them more interesting and sympathetic.

      • Celebitchy says:

        Thanks Esmom I won’t read anything else about them! I will definitely check out that book, especially now that Simmie is recommending it too. Ha that’s funny that they were both from Oak Park, I forgot about that in Paris Wife. I think I went to Oak Park about 10 years ago.

  2. LahdidahBaby says:

    Bedhead, Thanks for your thoughtful & insightful review of this novel. Great point about the distraction of the occasionally-shifting narrative voice – I too found that annoying because that shift caused the story to lose energy in those places and caused me to temporarily lose the kind of focus that sustains reader empathy. Also, I agree with Kaiser that the bull-fighting section dragged on. Still, overall it was a really compelling and well-written novel, and SO well-researched, as you say. It’s not easy to write a novel based in actual fact – especially such well-known fact – and still make it your own, and I feel the author succeeded at that very well. And though I too was frustrated with Hadley’s refusal to open her eyes and see what a douche she had married, like CB, I also felt that for her to soldier on so stubbornly was at some level understandable–for me, because she genuinely believed that in marrying Ernest, she had found her true life’s calling…a career of sorts., I guess you could say.

    A compelling read – well worth the time! Thanks for starting this book club – a great idea and perfect fit, with so many well-read (and opinionated!) posters here. ;-)

  3. Melissabee says:

    I just finished it as well. It started off strong, but I agree with you ladies; it just got so bogged down. Also: The three of them lived together for a time?? What, what?!? I think that I am looking at this book through my “modern eyes”, and wishing that she could have taken more of a stand in her marriage and not have been such a doormat. I was thinking that one of the next books to read could be ‘The Glass Castle’. One of my faves, and with Jennifer Lawrence producing/starring in it, it would be a good time to reread it! Thanks again for the book selection. This is fun :)

  4. Just Me says:

    Don’t get me started on Pauline! I wanted to wring both Pauline & Hadley’s necks in that bedroom scene. Please. LET some woman try to crawl into my bed. I’ll be damned if that ain’t the last thing she does!

  5. Tig says:

    I was so lukewarm on this book- and Hadley I wanted to shake sometimes- they move to Paris and are so poor- yet there are Parisians so much worse off than they are that she can hire nanny/maid for next to nothing bec they are so desperate. And this aspect of her time as a “Paris” wife is totally glossed over. I guess it could have been titled Ernest the Pig- the early years just as easily.

    Have not heard of next book- will check it out.

    Hav

    • Celebitchy says:

      That’s a good take on it, and also how they were constantly going on vacation and leaving their kid behind. I wondered after Ernest left if he even saw Bumby afterwards, he didn’t seem to care much.

      • Tig says:

        For what it’s worth- someone upthread mentioned Loving Frank- while the book was very well written, I came to hate Frank Lloyd Wright so bad that I actually regretted paying to tour Tallesin West!

        I just finished The Astronaut’s Wives Club- it is non-fiction, chatty in tone, and fascinating to see how the 60s media treated them and vice versa.

  6. Just Me says:

    I read this book a few Summers back. Once was enough for me. I don’t care to read it again. What Hadley went through is one of my worst nightmares. I don’t even know how you make it through that kind of betrayal. Not just by your husband, but by someone who is supposed to be your friend.

    Early on in my husband’s career we moved to Europe with a baby, as well. We were there for under a decade. It’s an incredible adventure, yes; however when things go badly, it’s also an incredibly lonely and isolating experience. I was able to relate to her on this level – - – and I just cannot imagine the pure hell she went through with all of this. The foreign country aspect adds a whole new layer of betrayal.

    The book pissed me off in a major way. I’ll stop and leave it at that.

  7. Peachy says:

    I haven’t read The Paris Wife – I prefer non-fiction, but if you enjoyed this book try “Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife” by Gioia Diliberto. It is absolutely fantastic. The 20′s were truly a magical time in history, in my opinion.
    Currently I am rereading “Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story” by Amanda Vaill which is another book about a golden couple in the 20′s.

  8. j.eyre says:

    Well, as I said before, I really liked this book. I am not a fan of Hemingway as a person or a writer so I was not bothered by the content of the book. I thought Ms. McClain did a really good job with Hadley’s “voice,” it felt quite genuine.

    I will confess that I spent the majority of the book waiting for Fitzgerald to make an appearance and that was when the book held my attention the most. The scene where Scott is critiquing the Sun Also Rises as Hemingway looks on over his shoulder was p0rn to me. As you some of you, I disliked the Pamplona bits.

    I very much like the writing. I was hooked into the book by the last paragraph of the Prologue. It cemented the tone, the voice and how Hadley was to reflect. For me, sometimes the writing can overcome the subject. I took the one commenters suggestion (I apologize, I forgot who exactly suggested it) and read A Moveable Feast since I had already read this and I could not get through that. Same subject but I disliked the way it was written.

    However, I admit a bias because of my feelings for Hemingway. I very much disliked Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and could list many reasons why. But it could boil down to the fact that I am far too sensitive about Fitzgerald.

    For the non-fiction readers, another nice book about this group of people is Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story by Amanda Vaill.

    • Esmom says:

      Great insights. I also was inspired to read A Moveable Feast after this and struggled. I probably should have my English degree revoked for saying this but I’ll admit it — Hemingway has never been my cup of tea.

      The Amanda Vaill book sounds fascinating, thanks for suggesting it.

      • j.eyre says:

        It is something I say hesitantly, for sure. Fortunately I am a history major so as long as I know Hemingway’s role in literature, they will allow me to keep my degree (for now)

        The Murphy book is a fun (quick) read. It is a little fawning of the Murphys but at some point, you start to wonder if maybe they aren’t worthy of the fawning – they even charmed Dorothy Parker.

  9. Andrea says:

    I read this for my local book club this summer. I greatly enjoyed it, but like others stated, I want to slap Hadley at times. I was a bit sheltered and naïve when I was young, but by my 20′s, by god I was never THAT meek and naïve. It was truly annoying especially since everyone around her was having dalliances/flings and mistresses it was naïve for her to believe that Hemingway would remain faithful. Overall though, I enjoyed the book immensely.

  10. Nicole says:

    I read this book a year ago and the Pauline thing really stuck with me. It was awful and torteous. I could not relate to Hadley whatsoever, but imagine her lack of power or any equality in the marriage at all was symptomatic of the times. Still, I appreciate she was honest about what she wanted and needed.

    The beginning of their time in Paris was romantic and I found myself wanting that adventure as well. The drinking, the food, the nights out and traveling.

    Overall, not my favorite book. But then again, I’m exhausted reading books that feature female characters that pander around waiting for a man to give them their happiness.

  11. Nimbolicious says:

    I read this book several months ago, and did so with the knowledge of what it is to live with active alcoholism and addiction. Hadley’s naïveté and tendency to diminish herself in service of Ernest’s drive for creative self-actualization actually felt very familiar. All those larger-than-life artistic types can suck the life out of a person who doesn’t care to trammel on other people and who doesn’t value herself enough to tell them all to go to hell. Hadley did a great job of enabling a very narcissistic alcoholic to live the dream. I like to think that had she met him today, she would have felt herself to have more options than wait for his attention to catalyze a life for her. I was just so struck by their initial courtship/correspondence, when she felt there was no other purpose to her life than waiting around for him.

  12. Kate says:

    Thank you for starting this book club. Since Borders Books and Music closed, I rarely purchase books. I prefer to hold, flip thru the pages ask a clerk for recommendations. I’m going to take your recommendation and purchase both.

  13. homegrrrl says:

    I’ve had this book in Kindle forever, haven’t finished. Sometimes real live books vibrate with that almost “white hot life”. Does the book have photos? I’m literary, but a true kindergartener inside. But I’ll try ti finish asI love this genre of women’s POV, post war, a la, Beryl Markham. They were so elegant, smart, yet to the point. I can’t abide the clipped stoccato of today’s manner of speaking…I’m lost in time…

  14. Yani says:

    Halfway through What Alice Forgot. Can’t wait to review it!

  15. Therese says:

    I love that you’re doing this. Please keep it up. Love it. Have you given any consideration to reviving Old Hollywood Monday? :-)