Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain



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

20 comments:

  1. I will probably skip this because I am not a big fan of the Jazz age or Hemmingway. But I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I agree - that writing would annoy me too.

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    1. I love the Jazz Age in general but I'm not Hemingway's biggest fan.

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  2. The fact that it's set in Paris in the 1920s is enough to make me want to read this book...even though I'm not a huge fan of Hemingway. Too bad it's not better written...still...it is Paris... :) Great review.

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    1. The Paris factor is the main reason I picked it up!

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  3. I first heard of Hadley in Z and must say I didn't feel like reading more about her life. It just me so angry how Ernest treated her! But everyone loves, in some degree, The Paris Wife, so I'll give it a try :)

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    1. I loved Z, it was such a good book. Zelda is much more fascinating and complex than Hadley as she is presented in Paris Wife.

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  4. You hit the mark with your comment about emotional engagement. I listened to this on audio in my car and only got up to the point where they move to Paris because I found it so dry. I didn't connect with Hadley at all and wanted more of Hemingway's story.
    Have you read A Moveable Feast by him? It is a lovely memoir of their time in Paris from Hemingway's point of view.

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    1. I haven't read Moveable Feast, but would really like to. I didn't love Farewell to Arms but am hoping that I will get on with Hemingway's memoir better than his fiction.

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  5. I was actually considering picking this one up off the shelf today. I decided to go with Outlander for now since I'm stuck in the house for so long with the weather, but it'll be one of my next reads for sure!
    Do you know if McLain was true to Hadley's character? My understanding was that she was more independent, but I could be totally wrong as I really know nothing about Hemingway and his numerous wives.

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    1. I would love to be snowed in with a big chunky book!
      To be honest, I'm not sure how true she was to Hadley's character, although all of the biographical information was correct. I hope she was a bit more independent.

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  6. I had exactly the same problems with this book. It's actually quite a relief to see that I am not the only one who feels this way - I was getting worried I'd missed the point of the book! I think the research is amazing but, having read A Moveable Feast and so many other works, it does feel all too familiar and like a list of events. Still, it is a good read, just not a wow read.

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    1. I expected to love it more than I did because the reviews were so good! I'd like to try Moveable Feast though...

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  7. My best friend read this and hated it! I haven't talked in depth about what she particularly disliked, but I suspect it reads along these same lines. Not sure I'll ever feel the need to pick up this book as Hemingway is not my jam. Thanks for the insightful review!!

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  8. I enjoyed this one. It was a little slow at times, but I empathized more with Hadley, sort of being the grown up in the room while Hemingway came across as selfish and arrogant. Still, after I read the book I read a biography- Paris Without End- The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife by Gioia Diliberto, and the two books were very similar. The emotional detachment might work better in the biography.

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  9. Definitely going to add this to my 'to read' list. I was talking to someone today about Naomi Wood's novel Mrs Hemingway which is published next month - that covers all 4 wives but I'm guessing in less detail. It'll be interesting to see how they compare.

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  10. Great to read your review. I read this book and loved it, because of the fact I am fascinated by Hemingway and because I love historical details. On the other hand I got bored with the artsy fartsy crew in Paris! Funny to see how different people can read the same book differently.

    Kind regards,

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  11. Very nice review -- this was a DNF for me because I couldn't stand the writing style either. It felt superficial, in a way -- perhaps too much of that 'and then we'-ness you mention.

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  12. I would have been bored with the ritzy Paris life too. But I enjoyed your wonderful review.

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  13. Thanks for sharing this review for Jazz Age January! I enjoyed this book, but I also agree with you that Hadley irritated me at times; the feminist in me was frustrated by her desire to be the perfect wife -- and not much else. Nice review!

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  14. Love your cover for this book.I was not really fond on Hadley either. Glad to see I am not the only one.

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