How does a woman fall in love with Ernest Hemingway? Very carefully. How does a woman marry him? Better not.
It is a sign of the paucity of contemporary imagination that so much fiction revisits earlier literary sites, writers seeking inspiration in lives more intense than their own. And Hemingway is too great a temptation to be resisted. Paula McLain's The Paris Wife recreates his marriage to Hadley Richardson.
Red-headed, eight years older than Hemingway and a solid sort, as first wives often are, Hadley met Hemingway in Chicago in 1920. They married in September, 1921. Hadley could hardly have known that she would be the first of four wives and countless other women.
What connected them? Hadley was neither literary nor worldly, although she was a reasonably good pianist. Her attraction seems to have been her absolute faith in Hemingway's talent, along with a small but useful inheritance and a willingness to follow him anywhere. Together they took part in the expatriate life of Paris in the '20s, travelling to Italy, Germany and Spain, all sites Hemingway ransacked for material.
Toronto has a small role in this novel. Hemingway was a foreign correspondent for The Toronto Star, and the couple returned to Toronto, where Hadley gave birth to their son in October, 1923. But within four months, they returned to Paris. As Hemingway grew more and more invested in his writing (and in other relationships), the marriage slowly unravelled, until he and Hadley divorced in 1927.
Those Paris years are carefully chronicled in this textual docudrama. McLain works hard to inhabit Hadley's point of view, but there is little inventiveness discernible. Because that time and those characters have been exhaustively memorialized, she may have been daunted by too much material and a magnificent cast, including Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Inspired by a real life, The Paris Wife is also constrained by that life, resulting in a thickness at its heart, a wall of factuality inhibiting McLain's imagination. The story seems trapped by the very lives it wants to depict. So "known" are they that the book stinks of its own history.
It is pleasurable to immerse oneself in the wonderful aromas of the Left Bank, to drink absinthe in the cafés of Paris and to watch the running of the bulls in Pamplona. What is best about this novel is its evocative nostalgia for that time and place.
But it misses many opportunities. Hadley was the one responsible for losing all of Hemingway's early drafts and papers (she left a valise carrying the manuscripts on a train, and it was stolen). Hemingway was furious. But rather than using this surely complicated moment to give Hadley some shading, McLain presents her as a fountain of tearful remorse. It might have been interesting to allow her some meanness, some self-actualization.
Instead, Hadley, for all her fascinating company, is a bore, and we are finally convinced that she was abandoned for the very reasons that made Hemingway marry her in the first place.
The Paris Wife is ultimately a tedious portrait of a naive and credulous woman. It is also an arch and emotional portrait of a writer in love with the idea of Hemingway's first wife more than with the writing of that idea. Ironically, although there are only five short sections from Hemingway's perspective, they work much better than Hadley's whole story. He was and is still the main event.
Before they married, Hadley apparently promised Hemingway that she would buy him a typewriter for his birthday. Surely that was a sign. Hadley Richardson chose to ignore it, but Paula McLain should not have.
Aritha van Herk lives and writes in Calgary, Alberta.