[Review] “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain: A Shadow Revealed

Sylvia Beach's legendary Parisian bookshop

Sylvia Beach’s legendary Parisian bookshop

The hallowed corners and cobwebs of Shakespeare & Co. have long been sacred to the Lost Generation enthusiast. Perched upon the left bank, Sylvia Beach’s small bookshop still touts a nook with a typewriter filled with notes from intellectual tourists trying to channel Fitzgerald, Stein or Hemingway  Sipping a café crème at Le Select in Montparnasse allows the Hemingway aficionado to channel his or her inner bohemian. But, to be honest, to really channel Hemingway  pre-Mojioto era, it is not about what you drink, but how much. On the surface Paula McLain’s novel, The Paris Wife, is another story paced by the drinking escapades of both Hadley and Ernest (with Zelda, Gertrude, Joyce, Dos Passos and all the rest) set at Le Select, 27 Rue de Fleurs and their annual pilgrimages to Pamplona.

Paula McLain has liberated Hadley Hemingway from a footnote in just another drinking tale of the Lost Generation. While Alice B. Toklas is remembered for being Gertrude Stein’s shadow, Hadley Richardson, as Hemingway’s companion in the early years, has often been neglected in revisionist histories, biographies, and (perhaps for obvious reasons) recently in Woody Allen’s A Midnight In Paris. Hadley’s version of those years, through Paula McLain’s eyes, articulates the complicated and oft-misunderstood relationship between “Tiny”: mother of “Bumby” and wife of “Tatie”.  McLain captures and imagines the inner-workings of that stout, “older” woman that fell in love with the optimistic and adventurous young Hemingway.  Hadley’s “Tatie”—casts a new light on the chauvinistic understanding of Hemingway. While readers will still detest him for breaking Hadley’s heart when he begins his affair with Pauline Pfieffer near the end of the novel, we can (almost) sympathize with the laissez-faire attitude of Paris in the twenties towards monogamy and marriage.

Hadley’s sacrifices to help cultivate “Tatie’s” gift have largely gone unnoticed in the mainstream American legend of “the” expatriates, until McLain’s book, which demonstrates a mastery of historical empathy but is studded with fact and references. Did you know she had the makings of a concert pianist? Do you know how she skimped to pay for Ernest’s rented room to write (and pursue Pauline)? Do you know how much she loved her husband? Paula McLain’s novel is remarkable for its precision in depicting the era, but also for her ability to empathize with Hemingway’s “Alice”.  Although at the time The Sun Also Rises was published he was divorcing “Tiny” and pursuing Pauline, Hemingway dedicated his first novel to her and Bumby. Quite simply—The Paris Wife is long overdue and Paula McLain achieved Hadley Richardson beautifully.  

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