McLain steps into mind of Hemingway’s ’Paris Wife’

“The Paris Wife” (Random House, $25), by Paula McLain

Hadley Richardson is a near spinster at 28 when she meets 21-year-old Ernest Hemingway during a visit to see a friend in Chicago. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry and head to Paris, where Hemingway tries to eke out a living as a journalist while writing short stories and his first novel.

The roaring ’20s are just getting under way, and the two consume plenty of alcohol and jazz while befriending other ex-patriot artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But Hadley, who once found Hemingway “more charged and convincing and altogether awake than anything I’d ever seen,” is out-of-date. She wants a family to care for, while Hemingway falls for a Vogue editor and demands an open marriage.

The threesome live together briefly before Hadley and Hemingway capitulate to his mistress’ demand that they divorce so he can marry her.

Paula McLain’s fictional account of Hemingway’s first marriage beautifully captures the sense of despair and faint hope that pervaded the era and their marriage. Hemingway is tortured by his memories of war, and Hadley by her strict upbringing and father’s suicide. In Paris, they wildly, and perhaps futilely, try to start over.

“We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was,” McLain writes in Hadley’s voice. “We invented it after all. We made it with our longing and cigarettes and Rhum St. James; we made it with smoke and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn’t ours. Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again.”

McLain gives Hadley a voice that is strong and sad. In her portrayal, Hemingway’s first wife is the kindest of the lot of rabid Americans, generously understanding of — although not blind to — his flaws.

A warning for Hemingway fans: This is not the book to read if you want to continue liking him.

Written much in the style of Nancy Horan’s “Loving Frank,” “The Paris Wife” has the same smooth flow so that you’re never fully aware of when the great artist — in this case, Hemingway — ceases to be a brilliant eccentric and becomes a boorish egomaniac. There’s only the realization near the end that the line has been crossed, and you, like Hadley, are ready to let him push off.

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