The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is a death caught in slow motion. It's like watching video of a cheetah running down a gazelle in order to witness the brutal details – in many ways, you want to stop it, but know you are already too late; you want to turn away but can’t.The Paris Wife is written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. It is their love story, with post-war Jazz Era Paris as its Serengeti. The cheetah could be the other woman who becomes Hemingway’s second wife, or his budding fame and desire to climb the social ladder, sacrificing the dead weight to move faster toward notoriety. McLain captures the sad inevitability with a poetic prose that reveals the author’s gift for compelling language and imagery.
Richardson and Hemingway were an odd couple: She was a Midwesterner raised in the Victorian tradition, looking for love and a family; and he was a young writer looking for adventure and fame. From the beginning Richardson is willing to change everything she is to be with Ernest: I closed my eyes and leaned into Ernest, smelling bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cotton – and everything about this moment is so sharp and lovely, I do something completely out of character and just let myself have it.
"We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was. We invented it after all. We made it with our longing and cigarettes and Rhum St. James..."
Richardson’s role as the good wife juxtaposed against Hemingway’s unrelenting ambition create the friction to keep the story interesting and engaging. Written with a loving softness, the sharp sadness of the story is blurred by the passage of time. Richardson tells her tale beginning at the end, and the unfolding storyline is delivered with a perception that's founded on dreamy memories, rather than the realities of the experiences. Everyone laughed, and it was one of those domino moments. That laugh would eventually set off an entire series of events, but not yet. It just stood there in the room, tipping and tipping, but not falling. Not falling yet. Not quite.
McLain’s language is rich, which makes for poignant, evocative imagery. She captures the characters’ abandonment of social mores, their living freely just because they could, laughing at death because they were one of the few ones death let slip by. War changed this generation. It made them whimsical and sarcastic, jovial and depressed – all mixed together like their cocktails. We called Paris the great good place, then, and it was. 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 it everything and then we busted it apart again.
The characters are well developed, not the more common caricatures associated with depictions of Hemingway. McClain captures the unabashed confidence of Hemingway.
She writes Hemingway talking about the bulls of Pamplona: They’ve been bred for six hundred years to do what they do, to make this run to the arena, to gore what they can on the way to their own certain death. Its goddamned beautiful is what it is. Just wait till you see it for yourself.
I never warmed to Ernest Hemingway. I came to the book with preconceived notions about him that were not challenged, but McLain does manage to explain his behavior, why he is so over the top macho. Throughout the novel, McLain slips in little chapters from Hemingway’s perspective. These brief insights suggest why he cheats on Richardson, and why he is so fascinated with death and suicide – the latter he considers a singular act of bravery.