The Paris of the 1920s is now legendary for the importance and the influence that its Left-Bank artists still hold over our cultural heritage, with Picasso, Joyce, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein and Hemingway all to be found working there and frequenting its cafés. They may have mixed in different circles, but each were pushed on by the immense creativity and experimentation that the others in the émigré community were achieving, revelling also in the sometimes scandalous details of the unconventional artistic lives the others were leading. Paula McLain's evocation of the period, focussing on Hemingway years in Paris, seen through the eyes of his first wife, Hadley Richardson, is masterful in its documentation of this period, bringing it fully and authentically to life.
The Paris years undoubtedly represent the best of Hemingway. This is where he created his early Nick Adams short stories, his prose miniatures and The Sun Also Rises, the novel that, along with The Great Gatsby and Tender Is The Night, best captures the personalities and the mindset of those caught up in the fertile changing times of the post-war period. More than just being a creatively productive period for Hemingway, one where he refined and perfected a pure declarative writing style that would almost descend into self-parody in later years, the time of his marriage to Hadley, being poor, starving and struggling to make a living as a writer in Paris, were later looked upon by Hemingway (whose life has also developed into a kind of self-parody), perhaps somewhat idealistically as being a time of purity and innocence that could never be recreated.
It's perhaps for this reason that Paula McLain attempts to do justice to the period not so much through Hemingway's not-entirely-to-be-trusted memoirs, but through the eyes of the woman who probably deserves to be thought of as more than just Hemingway's Paris wife (the first wife of four). With there being almost no trace of her presence, support or influence on his key works of the period, McLain makes a strong case nonetheless that without Hadley Richardson to encourage Hemingway through his struggles, failures and the torments that still afflicted him from his injuries as a soldier in Europe, we probably would never have the masterpieces he created. The author achieves this magnificently - it's fully researched, adhering perfectly to well-documented events and timelines (including the legendary incident of Hadley's loss of all Hem's early writing on a train), but more than that it feels authentic, never a staged recreation, the characters coming naturally to life with unforced dialogue that cleverly evokes Hemingway's style and the manner of speaking without ever parodying it.
It's all too easy to slip into parody and caricature with Hemingway, not only in his stripped-down, declarative writing style and the machismo of his outlook, but also in making reductive connections between his experiences and his writing. They are undoubtedly linked, but McLain makes convincing connections between the early war experiences, his later depression, his self-doubt and his fascination and fear of death, without over-emphasis. Similarly, in her description of the famous partying at the bull-runs of Pamplona, she shows the differences as well as the similarities between real-life and fiction, where creative licence serves a deeper purpose - one that unfortunately but necessarily excludes Hadley from the picture.
The Paris Wife is however able to redress the balance and it does so brilliantly. Whether this will appeal as much to anyone who knows nothing about the main figures or could care less about Hemingway, is difficult to say, but it ought to. The story of Hadley and Hemingway is a fascinating one, one that beautifully captures the strengths of a marriage of two people as well as the troubles they have to endure and the human mistakes they make, set against a fabulous, swinging background of Paris in a period of romantic glamour, but also, yes, a period of innocence too.
The story of her life beginning and ending with her time with Hemingway as far as the novel is concerned, Hadley Richardson does still remain "the Paris wife", in the shadow of a great writer and, for all their libertarian anti-bourgeois beliefs, still subject to old-fashioned views of a woman's place in a marriage. At the very least however Paula McLain's dazzling novel allows us to see a very real person behind those brief descriptions and blurry black-and-white photographs that remain of Hadley, adding another dimension and putting across a very human view of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times.