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The Paris Wife    by Paula McLain order for
Paris Wife
by Paula McLain
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2012 (2011)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Mainly set in 1920s Europe, Paula McLain's The Paris Wife tells the brilliant and turbulent tale of the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson Hemingway. Hadley recounts her own story and it's an engrossing one of a great romance that stands the test of time only for one partner. While Hadley deals with the pain of eventual rejection with grace, Ernest keeps seeking novelty and eventually succumbs to the personal demons that had always haunted him.

Hadley opens by telling us that she 'finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.' She explains the war as the reason 'we couldn't stop drinking or talking or kissing the wrong people no matter what it ruined.' She then takes us back to 1920 Chicago, where twenty-eight year old Hadley meets the younger Hemingway (a war hero) at a party. Seeking happiness after too much time dealing with her mother's illness and death in St. Louis, Hadley is instantly attracted to Ernest's 'intensity and aliveness', despite her friend Kate's warnings.

They share painful pasts - Ernest still has nightmares of his wartime experience, while Hadley's father committed suicide and a beloved sister died after being badly burned in a fire - and controlling mothers. Ernest feels still a child to his family. But he likes Hadley's directness and honesty. She encourages his writing. They marry in 1921 and head to Paris later that year, after Hadley receives a small inheritance from an uncle. In Paris, they meet other writers and a strong friendship grows between Ernest and Gertrude Stein. They meet Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many others.

Then, as Hadley journeys to meet Ernest in Switzerland, a valise containing his life work to date is stolen from her - Ernest is devastated and their relationship marred. Hadley's pregnancy (wanted by her and not by him) and the birth of their son John (nicknamed 'Bumby') stresses it further. While all this develops, we share the couple's trips to Spain with friends, Ernest's passion for bullfighting, and the relationships that shift and change around them. Finally Ernest begins to stray too - but when he seems to want to maintain a threesome (wife and mistress living together) Hadley has had enough.

Always direct and honest (with herself as much as others) Hadley credits Ernest for changing her - 'He helped me see what I really was and what I could do.' Though she moves on in her life, she is still concerned for the man she considers 'fine and strong and weak and cruel.' The Paris Wife is a remarkable book, portraying an unstable era, a complex and talented man - and the remarkable woman he married. Don't miss this one.

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