Introduction to the Paris Wife with Author Paula McLain:
From the cafes of Paris to the bullfights of Spain, author Paula McLain’s book The Paris Wife introduces readers into the world and mindset of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley. This historical fiction account is told from Hadley’s perspective. She is a midwesterner with traditional values. These values she calls “Victorian” or we might call “normal” are constantly at odds with the bohemian culture of jazz age Paris. Ultimately, bohemian culture gets the best of the attractive eternal frat boy Ernest. He abandons his wife and child for the Vogue fashion writer Pauline Pfeiffer, his wife’s best friend. And, we know from history he continues a life of hard drinking and partying.
But before all that happened:
Hadley and Hemingway’s romance begins with an introduction in Chicago among mutual friends. They start a correspondence of love letters when Hadley returns home to St. Louis, Missouri. (Fact: Three of the four of Hemingway’s wives have a connection to St. Louis.) These love letters and their attraction to each other leads to marriage despite their friends and families reservations about their romance. In the book, Ernest is a struggling writer who comes off as an irresponsible starving artist personality. After they get married they live in a sparse apartment in Chicago. Watch the video below to hear McLain’s description of their first pad:
Description of Apartment:
Life In Paris:
Ernest and Hadley decide to move to Paris because he thinks the Parisian environment will spark his creative genius. Hadley finds the idea of living in Paris romantic despite their tough financial situation. A friend in the U.S. writes letters and makes introductions on Ernest’s behalf and as a result he encounters other American expatriate writers and artists with their same interests as him. A cast of characters such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are part of this group of friends abroad.
Hadley loves Ernest and will do anything for him in the book. She wants Ernest to be happy and suffers when he leaves her for long periods of time to write his book and short stories. At one point in the book–there is a gut wrenching scene where Hadley loses a brief case contain 3 years of Ernest’s writings on a train. She was suppose to deliver it to him so he can share it with a publisher. I found myself wondering if he ever really truly forgave her–because this event seems like a pivotal moment in the novel. Or later on, you wonder if it is an underlining issue between them.
Hadley’s pregnancy is another source of contention between Hemingway and her. The couple move to Canada for a brief period of time so Hadley can have the child and they can save money. Ernest resents having to leave Paris and eventually they move back to Paris. Pregnancy and monogamy are not prevalent among the Hemingway circle of friends. One friend, Ezra Pound even forbids them from bringing their child to his home. Pound even pressures his own girlfriend to give away their child when she becomes pregnant. So, as I said before…Hadley is perceived as traditional by her peers (or dare I say normal?). She wants to be a mother. You get the vibe, Ernest’s friends are really not down for that. Pound warns her not to tame Ernest’s wilder side. He tells her, “it would be a terrible mistake if you tried to utterly domesticate him.” This comment is very telling of Ernest’s true nature.
Meanwhile, Hadley is lonely in Paris. She wants girlfriends of her own, not just Hemingway’s friends. She finds friendship in Kitty Cannell, Jinny and Pauline Pfeiffer. And Pauline is well…the damn devil and darlin’ everyone should know it…She is really awful and manipulative. See the video of McLain describing Pauline:
Pauline plays both sides of the fence. She has an affair with Ernest, all the while playing Hadley and pretending to be her best friend. It is the worst form of betrayal. Ernest wants to be the playboy and have both women like the rest of his friends who have complex love affairs with their girlfriends and wives. Hadley tries to maintain her relationship with Ernest and is even friendly with Pauline after she finds out. What is truly nuts is Hadley never confronts Pauline or screams at her. However, eventually Hadley caves and her marriage with Ernest fails. He abandons her and his child. Ernest marries Pauline. In life, Hemingway married four times!
Upon his suicide, his last book A Moveable Feast was found in his typewriter and later published.
It is a book about his time in Paris. A.E. Hotchner attributes Hemingway as saying, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” It is interesting at the end of Hemingway’s life, he reflected on his marriage to Hadley and one can only hope he felt truly sorry for how badly he disguarded her and his family.
My Questions About The Book:
1: Straight up Economic Questions Right Off The Bat: After reading this book I kept thinking, How did Hadley and Hemingway run off to Spain, Austria and all over Europe as starving artists? How did they afford a nanny? How did they afford to have a second apartment just so Hemingway could go there and write? More importantly, they complain about the conditions of their primary apartment and have an on again/off again sick baby but still go off on vacation all the time? I know they relied on some inheritance Hadley received from her family but it sounded like hardly anything that would barely pay their rent…so I just found their finances puzzling.
2. Pauline The Evil Frenemy: And of course the obvious elephant in the room…Pauline. How could Hadley not flip out on her? Did they have a real fight in real life? Did she really crawl in bed with Ernest while Hadley was asleep? These were just some of the questions I kept thinking as I was reading the book. If you read the book, let me know what you think. Now onto the not so deep and serious stuff.
Check out this funny video of an East Texas Book Club asking Paula McLain questions about the book. They style Paula to look like a flapper and make 1920′s themed drinks:
This is also another book club review:
Conclusion: The Paris Wife is an interesting story. It breaks your heart as a reader to see Hadley as the tragic starter wife. She struggled alongside her playboy husband only to watch him abandon her and his child, become successful and leave her for another woman. Sort of similar to Annie Potts in Designing Women or anything on Lifetime. It’s really sad but you watch the train wreck anyways. He may have loved her in the beginning but then he got bored with her. The author’s interviews seem to suggest the Hemingways were just fine until Ernest encountered the seductive tactics of Pauline Pfeiffer. But I don’t agree. There are other instances in the book where he flirts with other women, makes Hadley jealous of women and is just an all around bad boy. If this was a Jane Austen book, Ernest would be like John Willoughby or George Wickham.
However, I also plan to re-read A Moveable Feast (it’s been awhile) and maybe also read some biographies or additional work about him in order to have a more holistic outlook on his life. I realize this book is a “historical fiction” after all. P.S. I liked the HBO movie version of him.
The positive news is in the end, Hadley found a man who really loved her and by all accounts they lived a happy life together for about 35 years. McLain also suggests Hadley was not bitter. McLain tells us Hemingway’s biographer Carlos Baker interviewed Hadley and she still called Ernest a “prince” and had a loving memories of him (pg. 331). I don’t know if I believe she didn’t resent Hemingway; I think she could have acted this way for the sake of her son and grandchildren or her pride or the interview. Who knows? Nevertheless, anyone with an interest in Hemingway should read this book. McLain’s book has “all that jazz” and I like the way she creates settings in her book.