The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
2011 Random House Audio
Reader: Carrington MacDuffie
Finished on 5/31/13
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)
A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time—Paris in the twenties—and an extraordinary love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.
In Chicago in 1920, Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway and finds herself captivated by his good looks, intensity, and passionate desire to write. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group of expatriates that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
But the hard-drinking and fast-living café life does not celebrate traditional notions of family and monogamy. As Hadley struggles with jealousy and self-doubt and Ernest wrestles with his burgeoning writing career, they must confront a deception that could prove the undoing of one of the great romances in literary history.
It’s been close to 40 years since I’ve read a Hemingway novel. The Sun Also Rises, which I believe I read for a high school American Lit. class, was my first (and only) encounter with this renowned author’s works. Other than a vague recollection of the bullfights, I have no lasting impression of the book and until recently, no desire to try anything else by Hemingway. However, after watching Midnight in Paris last summer, I downloaded a sample of A Moveable Feast and am toying with the idea of reading it for this year’s Paris in July challenge. I also downloaded the audio version of The Paris Wife from my library. It’s been such a popular choice among book clubs and I was eager to see what everyone was raving about.
Paula McClain’s historical novel drew me in from the opening lines and held my attention from beginning to end. Other than a few random bits of gossipy information, I was quite ignorant with regard to any details of Hemingway’s life, so I went into the book completely blind. In reading historical fiction, one places a fair amount of trust in the author to get the facts straight and I have to admit that I wouldn’t recognize any inaccuracies in this particular novel. I was pleased when I discovered the following on the author’s website:
I'm hoping my novel will work to illuminate not just the facts of Ernest and Hadley's years in Paris, but the essence of that time and of their profound connection by weaving both the fully imagined and undeniably real.
When I began to research my book, beginning with biographies of Hemingway and Hadley, and with their delicious correspondence, I knew the actual story of the Hemingway's marriage was near perfect; it was a ready-made novel, ripe for the picking. I didn't have to invent a plot for them, nor did I want to. My work would be to use the framework of historical documentation to push into these characters' hearts and minds, discovering their motivations, their deepest wishes.
The most important step for me was getting Hadley's voice. She has very little dialogue in A Moveable Feast, but what's there is so evocative. It led me to seek out the letters she wrote to Ernest during their courtship, and that's when I knew I could write the book. Her speech rhythms, her intelligence and charm and sense of humor all come through with clarity and effervescence. I simply fell in love with her, with them both.
All in all, The Paris Wife was a good read, but not an outstanding one. Singer/songwriter Carrington MacDuffie does a fine job narrating the audio version and I quickly became engrossed in the narrative, happy to find any excuse to listen to another chapter. However, it’s been a month since I finished the novel and the details are beginning to fade. I’m almost finished with The Aviator’s Wife (another historical novel) and would recommend it over McClain’s effort. What do you think? Have you read either of these books? Did you like one better than the other? I’d love to hear your thoughts.