The Monday Book: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley was one of those books I let go in and out of the shop while it was bestselling, but had on my “as soon as it slows down, I’m taking it downstairs to read” list.

I guess I missed the window. Out of state recently in a thrift store, I found it lying on a neglected shelf of musty, curling books for a quarter. Although we typically eschew buying books for cash, there seemed only one course of action….

I admit that Hemingway’s Missing Suitcase of Work (if you’re not familiar with this cautionary tale, google it) has fascinated me for years, sorta like the Bermuda Triangle. So I anticipated really enjoying this book.

While I liked it, I didn’t love it, and that’s mostly down to how well McLain describes her characters. They don’t come off as nice people, the Stein/Fitzgerald/Anderson glitterati set inhabiting Paris between the wars. They come off as vapid and aggressive. Which means McLean is a really good writer.

She doesn’t try to sound like Hemingway. Hadley, as first person narrator of the book–and Hemingway’s first wife if not his first love–sounds like a lot of women trying to be their own person and also satisfy a guy.

McLain deals well with the added tensions of artistic competitiveness, both within the marriage and between the glittering members of the lit set. If you know a lot about Hemingway’s life, seeing these events from a close-but-not-the-same point of view is interesting–particularly the lost suitcase, a pivotal yet fairly quiet event just after the novel’s middle. It has the feel of just another day in the life, as McLain has written it–a bad day, but not coming out of the writing’s character to trumpet “And from that moment to this….!” There is no literary anachronism in this book.

I am glad I got to read it, but it won’t go down in history as a favorite. It turned out to be more interesting to me in relation to the Paris writing yuppies than as its own work. Which is likely why many people read it. It doesn’t disappoint, and I think it’s odd that the thing that shows what a good writer McLean is, is the thing that consigned the book to “meh” for me: that she shows the character and flawed core of all those literary heroes.

She did such a good job, I didn’t like them, or her book. But I liked her writing. Go figger. :]

4 thoughts on “The Monday Book: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

  1. Wendy, I could have given you my copy. Not sure why I’ve kept it. All my reading life, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on by and about Hemingway. I looked forward to reading this book for book club, and then it was my least favorite. I have to admit it didn’t occur to me that it might be because these just weren’t likable people. I should have thought about that. Yet I remember thinking in the past that many of those writers who hung out in Europe during and just before my time worked hard at glamorizing their own lives. In my youth I was such a Hemingway groupie that I still felt I had to go see his “places” as I got older. I had time to think about how hard he’d worked at glamorizing it all as I traced his steps down Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris and along the Gran Via in Madrid and all through Key West. I hated that Cuba got cut off before I had a chance to get there. All this just to say you probably hit the nail on the head and provided me new insight about why I was so disappointed in “The Paris Wife”.

  2. I liked it/didn’t like it for the same reasons you liked it/didn’t like it. Can’t wait to get back to Big Stone Gap to visit Christy and meet you, Wendy!

  3. I just couldn’t get on with that book and didn’t make it very far into it – probably my (almost pathological) hatred of all things Hemingway didn’t help!

    However, the Bookshop Band, – which started in our wonderful local book shop in Bath, England (Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights) – played two songs about the book when Paula McLain visited the shop. They are much better than the book – give them a listen here:

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