Book review: 'The Paris Wife' by Paula McLain

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The fascination with Ernest Hemingway's years in Paris in the early 1920s seems to never die. Witness the sudden rise on bestseller lists across the country of "The Paris Wife," Paula McLain's novel narrated by the first of Hemingway's four wives, Hadley Richardson. She tells the story of their years together; 1920-27. Hemingway himself found these years fascinating — in 1956, thirty years after his marriage to Richardson had ended, the author found an old trunk full of notebooks from that time in storage at the Paris Ritz. He began stitching together a memoir that included a long apology to Richardson and was itself full of nostalgia and regret. Three years after his suicide in 1961 his then wife Mary edited and published that memoir, sans apology to Richardson; it was called "A Moveable Feast."

In 2009 Hemingway's grandson Sean (through his second wife, Pauline), published the "Restored Edition" of "A Moveable Feast," deleting parts that were unflattering to his mother and adding chapters that had been removed. Critics continue to argue about which edition would be truer to Hemingway's heart. Mariel Hemingway, the writer's granddaughter (through Hadley), bought the film and television rights to "A Moveable Feast" in 2009.

The sheer volume of information and analysis of these years, so chock-full of larger-than-life literary greats — including John Dos Passos, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein — gives a novelist a smorgasbord of details and perspectives to choose from in constructing the story. The setting — Paris in the '20s, postwar euphoria, endless alcohol, Jazz Age music and dancing, café life, and artists' ateliers — provide a romantic background that most readers are familiar with and happy to revisit. McLain herself has, in several interviews, admitted to being swept away in the writing of the novel; completely enveloped in the lives of her characters.

The problem with this book-length swoon is that writer and reader overlook cliché after cliché, pedestrian writing and overpowering sentiment. Every scrap of dialog is dripping with emotion and acute foreshadowing. "He nodded into my hair. 'Let's always tell each other the truth. We can choose that, can't we?'" Hadley, who was, by all accounts, her own woman, ends up as spineless and simpering as a character can be outside an out-and-out bodice-ripper:

"I would gladly have climbed out of my skin and into his that night, because I believed that was what love meant." Pick a page, any page, and if you know anything about Hadley you are guaranteed to squirm.

This is how myths are made. Which is fine, but let's be clear that the closer we hurtle toward myth the farther we get from the complex truth of those lives in that time. There's a scene in the novel (one of the best, and there are a few) in which the author reveals what is actually wrong with the book. Hemingway takes Hadley back to the place in Italy where he was wounded during the war. "It was green and unscarred and completely lovely," Hadley reports. "Nothing felt honest. Thousands of men had died here just a few years earlier, Ernest himself had bled here, shot full of shrapnel, and yet everything was clean and shiny, as if the land itself had forgotten everything."

The question is: Does it matter? If readers fascinated by Hemingway & Co. want to get lost in a Hallmark version of his Paris years why shouldn't they? Good writing lies at the core of a writer's legacy.

But Hemingway's life, the very scale of it, overshadowed his writing, even in his own lifetime. I say, "Go ahead, tuck in! See how far you get! Read until your teeth hurt!"

Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.

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