Hadley Richardson is twenty-eight and recovering from the death of her mother when she meets fledgling writer Ernest Hemingway in Chicago. Having experienced a restricted life thanks to her mother and over-bearing sister, Hadley feels alive for the first time, and is attracted to the intensity and ambition of Hemingway. The pair soon become attached and marry quickly, before moving to Paris so Ernest can pursue his writing career. But life is tough first of all, as they struggle to keep pace with the decadent Jazz Age lifestyle. Hadley has modest dreams of a happy family that don't really fit with the gossip-ridden, alcohol fuelled company they keep. Following the arrival of their son, Hadley's withdrawal from the scene causes further tension in her marriage, as more independent and 'modern' women begin to make themselves apparent.
There is much to like about The Paris Wife. If, like me, you enjoy reading about the Jazz Age and the circle of writers living in Paris at that time, there's lots to admire. McLain does a good job of capturing the decadence whilst also showing that everything wasn't perfect for the young writers and their families. I loved reading the scenes where Hadley and Ernest go out on the town with the Fitzgeralds and the way the writers interacted with each other. If I could get in a time capsule and go back to 1920s Paris, I would!
However, there were a few factors that prevented me from really loving this book. One was to do with the writing, and one to do with Hadley herself. Taking Hadley first, I found her characterisation irritating at times. She devoted her whole life to Hemingway and seemed to have no interests or life of her own. All she wanted to do was have a family and keep house, which was frustrating given the amazing experiences that were knocking on her doorstep. Even when she travels with Hemingway to Spain, you never get the impression that she's soaking it up, she continues to think about more mundane matters. If I was married to a dashing young writer in 1920s Paris, I would be living it up, a la Zelda Fitzgerald! Hadley's passivity and dependence on Hemingway become especially annoying in the later sections of the novel, as her marriage starts to disintegrate. She puts up with a lot and seems unwilling to demand any better for herself.
My other issue was more to do with the writing. McLain has clearly done a vast amount of research, and it's admirable how close her book is to the actual events of Hadley's life. However, being so accurate meant that occasionally the book felt a bit like 'then I did this in September 1923 and we visited here in October 1924 with our friend (insert name here). I truly do appreciate the research done, but sometimes it felt like the emotional engagement and telling Hadley's story took a back-seat to biographical information.
Still, The Paris Wife was a fun read that definitely captured 1920s Jazz Age Paris. It's easy to read and great if you're looking to visit another time or place, it just didn't set my world on fire.
Read for Jazz Age January
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2011
Edition Read: Virago Press 2012
Score: 3 out of 5