“It was sometimes painful for me to think that to those who followed his life with interest, I was just the early wife, the Paris wife. But that was probably vanity, wanting to stand out in a long line of women. In truth, it didn’t matter what others saw. We knew what we had and what it meant, and though so much had happened since for both of us, there was nothing like those years in Paris, after the war. Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.”
In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein (writing as her partner Alice) describes how when artists would visit them, Gertrude would talk with the men while Alice sat with the wives. That was Alice’s job: Gertrude would have intellectual discussions with the various men of genius while Alice sat in another room and talked about hats or whatever with Mrs. Picasso, Mrs. Matisse, and, of course, Mrs. Hemingway. This illustrates what I found so frustrating about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and, by extension, The Paris Wife: while it’s certainly interesting to read about the people who shaped and affected artists’ lives, the fact is that these people who were forgotten or ignored by history can never escape the shadow of their famous loved ones. Sometimes these ignored bystanders are untapped wells of unacknowledged genius and influence. And sometimes they’re Hadley Hemingway.
Look, I’m sure Hadley was a lovely person. If nothing else, she deserves a medal for putting up with Ernest Hemingway’s shit for so many years, and for going on to live a long and happy life after she left him. But the unfortunate truth, a truth that Paula McLain’s book cannot escape, is that Hadley Hemingway’s life did not need its own novel.
The book started out strong, when we’re seeing Hadley and Ernest meeting in Chicago when they’re in their twenties. It’s the best part of the book, because their chemistry is obvious and you can totally understand why these two got married and moved halfway across the world together. But once the Hemingways move to Paris and Ernest’s career starts taking off, that chemistry and that connection disappears, and we’re left with a book about a woman who stood on the sidewalk and waved as a parade of famous people walked through her life.
The biggest problem was Hadley herself. I didn’t understand her any better at the end of the book than I did at the beginning, and throughout the story I could never predict how she was going to react to a given situation, because I never got a sense of who she was as a person. Her motivations and reactions were constantly baffling to me – sometimes Ernest would do something boneheaded and Hadley would get angry at him; other times she would just shrug and think, “oh well, that’s just how he is.” And she’s so, so irritatingly passive. Hadley is a talented piano player but has never pursued it professionally, but about halfway through the novel she decides (after much prompting from her friends, because Hadley never really makes any decisions independently) to put on a concert. As I read descriptions of Hadley practicing for the performance, I thought, Yes! Your life has a purpose! You have identified a goal and are working towards it! You are finally behaving like a protagonist! Go, Hadley, go!
And then Ernest cheats on her and she cancels the concert. Cue sad trombone. After Ernest comes clean about the affair, Hadley once again decides to start acting like a dynamic character and gives Ernest an ultimatum: Ernest will not contact the other woman for one hundred days, and if, at the end of that period, he still wants to go through with the divorce, Hadley will agree to it. Guess who caves and agrees to the divorce before the hundred days are up?
Possibly the biggest misstep in the novel is McLain’s decision to insert random chapters, mostly flashbacks, from Ernest’s perspective, and it only serves to prove that Hadley cannot sustain an entire novel on her own. And I have to say – for a book that takes place in the roaring twenties in an artists’ community in Paris, it’s fucking boring. Even the Fitzgeralds were dull, which I didn’t think was possible.
An ordinary story about an ordinary woman who happened to know some famous people once. It’s sort of like listening to your friend tell a boring story about how she was once in an elevator with a celebrity.
Not everyone needs a biography.
Verdict: two out of five stars