Paula McLain’s fictional account of Ernest Hemmingway’s first marriage to the quiet, unassuming Hadley Richardson, some years his senior, is largely based on fact. McLain meticulously researched her subject, and includes excerpts of letters between the doomed couple. She does not waste a word. She creates powerful moods and images with just a few well chosen words and effortlessly creates the world of Paris in the 1920s. It was romantic and harsh in equal measures.
Her book quickly became a best seller.
Hemmingway and Richardson married in 1921 and soon went to live in Paris, where he felt his career as a writer would benefit. They soon fell in with a circle of lively and volatile expatriates, including F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound.
Ernest and Hadley were thrust into a life of artistic ambition, hard liquor and spur-of-the-moment dashes to Pamplona, the Riviera and the Swiss Alps. But Jazz Age Paris did not lend itself to family life and fidelity. As Hadley fought with jealousy and self-doubt, Ernest’s ferocious literary endeavours began to bear fruit, and the couple faced the ultimate crisis of their marriage – a deception that led to the unravelling of everything they made for themselves in Paris.
The narrator is Hadley. She was not one of the fickle literary expat figures swanning around Paris with pretentious airs. She was out of place, but the perfect standpoint to observe this turbulent world with a more objective eye. Hemmingway became a notorious womaniser and was married four times.
He was also arguably America’s most important writer of the 20th Century, and his novels often centred around real events of the day. Like McLain, his writing was lean and lyrical. But according to this account, it was tortuous work. His mastery did not come easily. Hadley spent a lot of time struggling to make her own way in Paris while Ernest wrote in draughty, freezing garrets or in cafes. He was mercurial, self-centred and a heavy drinker. He must have been hell to live with. But I’m off to the library tomorrow to rediscover Hemmingway, anyway.
McLain is the author of two collections of poetry, as well as a memoir, Like Family, and a novel, A Ticket to Ride. She lives in Cleveland with her family.
The Paris Wife, pub by Virago, $A29.99