The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is an historical fiction romance novel all rolled into one beautiful and tragic love story between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley Richardson. The novel is told from Hadley’s point-of-view most of the time and from Ernest’s point-of-view only a few times. The novel begins with Hadley describing to us where she spent her childhood, how she was raised, and how she and Ernest first met. She details how Hemingway lavished attention on her and asked if he could write to her when they were apart, to which she agreed. Hadley quickly falls in love with Ernest and he falls in love with her. They have a whirlwind courtship before getting married.
Hadley walks readers through the first years of her marriage to Ernest – what it was like and how happy they were most of the time. Through their interactions, we see that Hadley was a wonderfully calm, understanding, loving and patient wife. Many of their friends believed that Hadley and Ernest had the perfect relationship and marriage. Openly in love with each other, Hadley’s and Ernest’s dedication to each other was evident to many who spent time with them in the beginning. During this time Ernest may have had a few quick affairs, but they never turned into anything serious, never lasted long and never caused Hadley to worry about her relationship to Ernest and their marriage.
While Ernest and Hadley were living in Paris, they had an active social life usually spending their weekends with numerous friends. Usually they spent time with husbands and wives, a lot of their friends were either businessmen, authors or some other kind of artist-type and many of the wives that Hadley met had husbands that had cheated or were cheating on their wives. As Hadley and Ernest make friends with some big names around the writing world, Ernest also burns some bridges due to his own stubbornness and wild ideas about some people. After that, some (or maybe lots of) other things happen, but the main thing is that Hadley meets two sisters whom she rapidly becomes friends with and grows to love. One sister in particular who Hadley became very good friends with and spent all of her time with, when she was not with Ernest and/or baby, the young woman named Pauline. Pauline and Ernest got along well and became friends which makes Hadley happy because that means she can have both with her at the same time. Pauline spent so much time with Hadley and Ernest at their place that she wouldn’t leave their house until 10-ish PM so Hadley asked Ernest to walk Pauline home to make sure she was not harmed and made it home safely; so he did. On these walks (there were more than one) home, Pauline and Ernest would talk about his writings, trying to find a steady publisher and make more money.
Around this time Hadley and Ernest are having some marital woes and are arguing a bit more. I think the marital woes have to do with a few things, but one of the main points that Hadley was making was the amount of time Ernest spent in this separate office and how many hours in a day he works. He was frustrated because he needed to write and the words weren’t coming out the way he wanted them to. Hadley and Pauline continue to spend time together, but Hadley notices Pauline’s behaviors have changed. She is out and about with Pauline and her sister one day when Hadley notices that Pauline is weepy and mopey. So she asked the sister about the issue and as they continued to talk – Pauline has run off by this time – Hadley realizes that Pauline has fallen in love with her husband. Making matters worse, she had to question whether or not Ernest felt the same way about Pauline, and if he did, would he act on them? She didn’t really know, but wouldn’t concede that he wouldn’t or didn’t. Apparently, it was difficult for Pauline to spend time with Hadley now that she loves Ernest and couldn’t spend all of her time with him. Somewhere along the line, Hadley figures out that Pauline means something more to Ernest and that their affair doesn’t appear to be going away. She feels betrayed by the both of them (and she was) and she is angry, hurt, disappointed, sad, and overwhelmed.
Ernest couldn’t promise that he’ll be able to stop their relationship because of how he feels about Pauline; so, Hadley and baby left to go to the usual vacation spot for the summer and fall to spend some time with friends, get away from Paris for a while and relax. While they were visiting, the baby got sick and had to be quarantined meaning Hadley had to go with him since nobody else was there to take care of him for her. Since the baby needed to be quarantined, Hadley called for the nanny/nurse to come care for the boy until his health improved and he was no longer contagious. After Ernest showed up, he was receiving letters from and writing letters to Pauline, and in her letters she either begged Ernest to let her come stay near them during the vacation so she could spend time with him too or she would whine about how she didn’t think it was fair that she couldn’t spend time with him like Hadley can simply because they weren’t married and that she was missing him. Since Ernest missed Pauline too and couldn’t handle the pressure anymore, he mustered up the courage to ask Hadley if Pauline could come and used the excuse that she would be good company for Hadley since he would still be working to finish his book.
It is clear that Hadley was not fond of this idea, but didn’t want to say no so she said that it was ok to which Ernest thanked her and promised her that if she got uncomfortable about it at any point during the vacation, to let him know and they would end the whole thing and send Pauline home. So Pauline arrived a few days later and she was as happy as she could be and was ready to live with the Hemingways. Pauline did not appear to care much at all about Hadley’s feelings about the whole situation and forgot that Hadley had not had the same amount of time to mentally process the seriousness of the relationship between Ernest and Pauline as Pauline had since she was in on the deception from the start and some would even say she was the instigator of the deception. Anyway, I digress.
It is during one of the big dinners at one of their friend’s house that Pauline and Ernest make it kind of obvious that she was his mistress and that Hadley was not going to do anything about it. Hadley was horrified and embarrassed by their blatant show of affection for each other despite his wife sitting not far from them. She felt like they were rubbing it in her face. Since Hadley didn’t want to face her friends after that terrible debacle and their son was feeling well enough to travel again, Hadley decided to take him and the nanny/nurse back to Paris. While in Paris, Hadley took the time to think things through and sort through her feelings to figure out what she wanted for herself, what she thought would be best for their son and how she felt about Ernest still. She decides that she would separate from him that way she won’t have to be publicly hurt and humiliated anymore much to Ernest’s dismay. He was really hoping that Hadley could help them make it work and that he would be able to keep her and Pauline as well. The remainder of the novel is Hadley telling readers about what happened to Ernest over the years as he jumped from wife, to mistress, to wife, to mistress, to wife, to mistress before stopping.
Overall, the book was very good and I was pleasantly surprised. I like that the author kept the story moving, there weren’t any boring parts in my opinion. The story is engaging and I’m so nosy I couldn’t wait to find out what the deception was that would set Hadley’s and Ernest’s relationship into a frenzy so I blew through this book to find out what it was. My favorite character in the novel is Hadley because she’s a wonderful example of what loving a person despite their prior transgressions (meaning forgiving someone for hurting you in the past) and their human flaws are because nobody is perfect. I was appalled that Ernest thought he could, somehow, get away with having a wife AND a mistress at the same time and that BOTH women would be cool with it. I was also disgusted that Pauline was ok with it as long as she could have time with Ernest. This arrangement was doomed from the start for multiple reasons:
- There were no boundaries set in these relationships from the start and therefore, the boundaries that should have been set up front could not be enforced because they didn’t exist and that allowed for Pauline to set the rules.
- Only one person was on board with this arrangement and really willing to give it a try and that was Ernest – Hadley had her reservations about this arrangement and rightly so. I would never agree to such an invasion on my marriage and I’m shocked that Ernest had the bravery to even ask if Pauline could come.
- It’s not the way it was meant to be anyway and Ernest should have simply stayed with his wife and worked things out. He made it sound like he still loved and will forever love Hadley, but that he just couldn’t help himself and that being in a monogamous relationship is too much work and pressure or something like that. It’s not an excuse and it’s a terrible attempt to justify abhorrent behavior that one can control and simply chooses not to.
I was/am mad at Ernest and Pauline for their egregious acts against Hadley – for starting the sordid affair devastating Hadley’s life is absolutely infuriating; Pauline is a homewrecker and my least favorite character in the novel for the reason I just mentioned. Pauline’s behavior breaks a lot of the tenets of the female code and that is just not something you do to a woman you call a “friend”, so her actions are just unacceptable. I would recommend this book to any reader who enjoys historical, fiction, romance or all three; I found the copy I have at a used bookstore for $4.99, but if you don’t have a used bookstore near you, then you could check your local library or libraries if you’re like me and go to more than one. If you would prefer to purchase your very own brand new copy of the book, Barnes and Noble sells the paperback for $17.00 (or $15.50 for B&N Members!).
Phew! That’s the end and that was a long one aaaaannnndddddddd it didn’t even cover everything that happened in the novel. So, thank you for stopping by to read another book review, if you’re interested in reading more you can head over here and remember that book reviews go up every Friday afternoon EST!