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, Amazon.com or The Book Depository