The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage during the years of his budding writing career before he was catapulted into fame and fortune. The story is narrated through the perspective of his first wife Hadley who witnesses the nascent writer transform into a legend along with the slow and painful disintegration of their marriage. The young Hemingways move from Chicago to lead a humble life as newly weds in a small flat in the Paris of the 1920s and are instantly thrown into the hedonistic milieu of hard drinking and partying with fellow expats.
Paula McLain, the author, did extensive research studying correspondence exchanged between the couple, reading their biographies and Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. Within this framework of information, she has given a voice to Hadley who was generally relegated to the background in the looming presence of her husband. It would have certainly been impossible for McLain to know every intimate moment and every conversation that took place between the couple and she must have taken liberty with the details but she claims to be as accurate as one could possibly be to their story.
McLain has beautifully evoked the atmosphere of depravity and debauchery that characterized the era of the Lost Generation in post war Paris. I felt a voyeuristic thrill as I was transported to Paris with the Hemingways, frequenting the cafés and restaurants along with them, accompanying them on their skiing trips to Austria and bull fighting spectacles in Spain and visiting the glitzy homes of their friends on the Riviera, hobnobbing with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and James Joyce among others. After finishing the book, I rushed to read The Sun also Rises and A Moveable Feast to prolong the joy of living vicariously through them in that wonderful bygone era.
Both Hemingways entered the marriage with a lot of baggage. Hadley had a difficult childhood where she lost both her sister and her father, the latter to suicide. She herself suffered from many nervous spells. Ernest spent a few years fighting in World War 1 and sustained an injury to his leg. The chemistry between the two is undeniable. They both call each other ‘Tatie’ and have a host of endearing nicknames for each other. He thinks they are essentially alike, ‘the same guy’ but they couldn’t be more different from each other. He has a charming and colorful personality. She doesn’t exactly fit into the bohemian lifestyle in Paris and she refers to herself as ‘victorian’ as opposed to ‘modern’ but she strives hard to please her husband and is exceedingly agreeable and accommodating. She helps establish his writing career, reads through his drafts and even supports him financially. She is his rock but he has a roving eye. He needs her to feel safe but at the same time values his space. Besides, she has to make a lot of sacrifices. She has to live frugally while the other women around her wear chic clothing. An unexpected pregnancy prompts Ezra Pound to warn her that it would be a dire mistake to let parenthood change Hemingway. They have their bonny baby boy and things still go on smoothly. It was not parenthood (although their parenting style would leave much to be desired in contemporary times) but fame that eventually affected their marriage. When Ernest receives his contract for In Our Time, Hadley remarks: “ He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy.” In their early married years, Hadley loses his valise containing all his work to date. You have to wonder if he ever forgives her for that blunder and if that incident represents a turning point in their marriage along with the entry of the other woman.
The other woman is Pauline Pffeiffer, a wealthy socialite who insidiously creeps not only into their domestic life by befriending both of them and calling them ‘my cherishables’ but also into their bedroom. What would you do if a beautiful naked woman crawls under the sheets on your husband’s side of the bed? What did Hadley do? She pretended she was asleep. Now suddenly there are three of everything in their lives: three oeufs au jambon, three steaming brioches, three glasses of juice, three breakfast trays, three terrycloth robes, three wet bathing suits on the line and on the rocky path three bicycles stood on their stands: “…You could see how thin each kickstand was under the weight of the heavy frame, and how they were poised to fall like dominoes on the skeletons of elephants or like love itself.” A ménage à trois forms gradually without either of them realizing or wishing it. What does Hadley get out of the relationship? Is she an enabler? She comes across as an insecure woman madly in love with her husband and tolerant of his wayward behavior. The Paris Wife reveals a lot about the Paris husband too. Hemingway appears to be a needy, narcissistic, jealous and unkind person- in one word, a jerk. He is critical and dismissive of his friends. Yet, you understand where he is coming from and look at him from a sympathetic standpoint. There are a few chapters narrated from his point of view and he does reveal a soft and tender side. The War had a devastating effect on those who fought and survived. Hemingway suffered from what we refer to as PTSD today. The war also brought about a change in values. Gone was the moral rectitude of the Victorian age. Besides, he was an artist married to his art which leads us to the interesting question if being an artist justifies a bohemian lifestyle. Hadley seems weak but she shows a lot of grace and strength as her marriage crumbles and finally calls him selfish and a coward before leaving him.
From the beginning Hadley has a premonition that her marriage is doomed. A passage that struck me in particular in the beginning of the book describes her walks to Les Halles, the open air market where she would linger to admire the lavish meats on display, the bushels overflowing with vegetables and fruits. But in the alleyways behind the marketplace, fruit and meat rotted in crates and reminded her of the gutters in the Place de la Contrescarpe where colored dyes ran freely from the flower vendors’ carts. The lush exterior hides an ugliness underneath and reminds her of the words Ernest had uttered way back in Chicago: “Love is a beautiful liar.” The Paris Wife is a touching and bittersweet love story with some degree of closure in the end. Hadley remarries and leads a contented life and Ernest calls her years later over the phone before committing suicide. While looking back on the Paris years, Hadley remarks: “ Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.” In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway poignantly writes,” I wish I had died before I had loved anyone but her.” The Paris wife or the early or first wife was but one wife in a long line of wives and lovers but perhaps she was the one despite everything and even despite the fact that love is a beautiful liar.