The Paris Wife by Paula McLain + Giveaway!

25th Feb 2011


We’ve got three copies of The Paris Wife to give away! For details of how to enter, take a peek at the end of this review…

Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife is a fictionalised memoir written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Beginning from their first meeting in Chicago in 1920, and covering their rollercoaster romance, marriage and move to Paris, it combines easy dialogue with deft, lyrical language to form a rich, compelling and meticulously-researched portrait.

Paris is as much of a central character as either Ernest or Hadley, and romanticised for its cafe culture, nights of absinthe and adultery, and the sense of excitement and reinvention surrounding its community of expatriate artists, authors and intellectuals.

Described in the book’s prologue as “filthy and gorgeous, full of rats and horse chestnut blossoms and poetry,” this is a city that never sleeps, from the dancehall next door to Hadley and Ernest’s humble first apartment, which keeps them awake with its constant accordion music, to the decadent dinner parties at the homes of their famous friends once Ernest is more established.

Featuring cameos from the likes of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the community of eccentric and creative characters that they become involved in is all the more fascinating for knowing that it has its basis in fact.

The counterpoint to Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which reminisces about his days as an unknown author as a time of purity and innocence, The Paris Wife covers the same timeframe and events, including their jaunts around Europe and a much-mythologised incident when Hadley lost a suitcase of Ernest’s early manuscripts.

The depth of detail in Hadley’s narration illuminates the author’s seamless interweaving of investigation and imagination, from the anecdotes about their breakfasts or Ernest’s out-of-control beard to the nicknames they used for each other.

Hadley is depicted and patient and stoic; despite her doubts, frustrations and increasing sense of isolation, she is an endless source of support as Ernest develops and hones the writing style for which he would later became world-renowned.

Although there are some warm and tender family moments, after the birth of their son Bumby, Ernest’s relentless ambition, arrogance and egomania come to the fore, and their marriages begins to disintegrate.

Hadley’s weakness and passivity verge on the irritating at certain points, but her faltering strength and resilience as their relationship ends in ruins is heartbreaking and authentic.

Although this isn’t one for everyone (it’s already polarised opinions among Ernest’s acolytes), for someone like me who knew only the bare bones of their story, it’s a poignant and engrossing retelling that reanimates literary legend with its pitch-perfect sense of place and voice.

The American edition was published earlier this week. In the UK, it’s published by Virago next week, on March 3rd. You can pre-order it in hardback for £8.70, or get the Kindle edition for £6.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Romantics, idealists and anyone smitten with idea of the Left Bank community living, working and seducing each other in 1920s Paris.

Other recommended reading: For real-life Parisian shenanigans involving a long list of famous literary faces, try Tête à Tête, Hazel Rowley’s brilliant biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. As well as a rich and evocative account of the lives of literature’s most iconic couple, it also details their surroundings and the adultery and other illicit activities of their incestuously close social circle.

Want to win a copy of The Paris Wife? We’ve got three copies of the American edition to give away, and all you need to do is enter in one of these three easy ways:

Comment on this post telling us which character from fact or fiction deserves their own fictionalised memoir, ‘like’ the Facebook post or tweet us saying: “Never mind trouble and strife, I want @forbookssake’s copy of The Paris Wife.”

Usual terms and conditions apply, and we’ll select a winner this time next week. Good luck!

Jane Bradley


  • Ellen says:

    Nice review. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book – when I heard about it my first thought was a sort of horror at the thought of a fictionalized hemingway. mclain does it pretty well, though, and as frustrating as hadley’s passivity can be at times, it also serves as an interesting counterpoint to those around her. she seems, the whole time, so FAR from where hemingway and those around him are headed.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ellen – I felt mixed about her too! Did you know much about Hemingway before you read the book? I hardly knew anything which is why I think I may have been more sympathetic than some other reviewers!

  • What a lovely review, a lot of great buzz around this book! Just bought it for my mom for her birthday, does it sound terrible if I say I hope she lends it back to me later? Love the blog,just follwed on twitter, look forward to more great reviews.

  • Rhiannon says:

    Ooh, that’s actually a really fun question. A lot of women never got to have their say. I think that I would nominate the following women as deserving of a fictional memoir:

    1. Lolita, because we never got to hear her side of the story (someone may have already done this)
    2. Ophelia (again, super obvious)
    3. Sarah Baartman
    4. Eva Braun
    5. Rosalind Franklun
    6. Laura (as in Petrarch’s Laura)
    7. de Sade’s wife, who took him dildos and chocolate in prison and waited until he was released to leave him
    8. Emma Smith (wife of Joseph Smith)
    ok I’ll stop there. Great question!

  • lucy lowe says:

    Thanks for this. If anyone is interested, this is being b’cast as the daily serial on R4 at 10.45 am this week as part of ‘Woman’s Hour’. Well worth checking out on iPlayer if you’ve missed it.