The Paris Wife

by Paula McLain

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Paris Wife is about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson. They married in September 1921, two months before he got a newpaper job which made it possible for them to move to Paris. Hemingway was twenty-two years old, matured by his experiences as a Red Cross driver in the first World War and bearing scars from it which we would now label PTSD. Hadley was a childlike twenty-nine, sheltered by an overprotective and dominating mother who had died a few months before the two met. Readers who know anything about Hemingway know the marriage did not last. Narrated by Hadley, the novel acknowledges this with wistful foreshadowing: "This isn't a detective story ... but she's coming anyway, set on her course in a gorgeous chipmunk coat and fine shoes, her sleek brown hair bobbed so close to her well-made head she'll seem like a pretty otter in my kitchen."

Hadley has creative talent herself; she is a pianist but too shy to perform. Hemingway is sophisticated, intense, and devastatingly handsome. The catnip for Hadley, though, is his combination of talent and ambition. He "talked fast about his plans, all the things he wanted for himself, the poems, stories and sketches he was burning to write. I'd never met anyone so vibrant or alive. He moved like light. He never stopped moving - or thinking, or dreaming apparently." And he needs her. For now, at least. Warned away from Hemingway by a mutual friend, Hadley is too love-struck to take advice.

Hemingway was both writer and celebrity, so his life is well documented, as are those of his wives. This novel does something nonfiction can never quite achieve. It brings readers inside Hadley's heart, a place that can only be imagined, never truly documented. Hers is a warm and generous heart, and The Paris Wife is a warm, generous novel that, without minimizing the flaws of either Hadley or Hemingway, ends on a note of mournful and sincere affection for both. (2011, 320 pages, including a Note on Sources)

More about The Paris Wife at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Other fiction revolving around Hemingway or the Paris expatriates of the 1920s:

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926), a novel based on Hemingway's 1925 visit to Spain for the running of the bulls and the bullfights in Pamplona; Hadley was with him, but is omitted from the story. More info

Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway by Joyce Carol Oates (2008). More info

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (2011), about a model for the artist Tamara de Lempicka and their love affair in 1920s Paris. More info

Nonfiction about Hadley and Hemingway:

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (published posthumously in 1964), Hemingway's memoir of his time in Paris and his marriage to Hadley. More info

Hadley: The First Mrs. Hemingway by Alice Hunt Sokoloff (1973). More info

Hadley by Gioia Diliberto (1992). More info

At the Movies:

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's 2011 romantic comedy about a young writer who slips back in time to Paris of the 1920s where he meets Hemingway and other expatriate writers and artists.


"First Wife" in Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure, at - includes a recipe for "Trout au Bleu," a favorite of Hemingway's.

Back to Novels about Americans in the 1920s

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