The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, Virago, RRP£12.99, 392 pages
Hadley Richardson, born in St Louis in 1891, was raised to be one of those feeble Victorian women who were always resting or fainting. She lived in morose captivity in a chic family whose members kept dying. Nobody would remember her, save that, aged 28, she met 20-year-old Ernest Hemingway.
She became his first wife, his companion in Paris in the 1920s. This meticulous historical novel by the American writer Paula McLain, pleasantly told in the voice of Richardson looking back, helps explain the enduring enchantment of those Paris years.
McLain has read deeply in the vast Hemingway industry, which extends to at least two biographies of Richardson. No man is a hero to his wife. She soon found behind the machismo a traumatised war veteran who slept with the light on. Wounded in Italy in 1918, he was still having nightmares in 1920s Paris.
Hemingway carefully constructed his life as a work of art – drink, bulls, love affairs, travel – and then wrote it. In this novel, he and Richardson take it for granted that she, too, will live for his writing. When she packs his entire early work into a valise and loses it at a station, we realise that for Hemingway that valise mattered more than any wife could.
Unfortunately, a dutiful wife makes an underwhelming narrator. It’s unclear whether we should blame Richardson or McLain for the pat phrases that clog the book’s first third: “The ceremony was quiet and beautiful and went off without a hitch.” Undigested lumps from history textbooks are surely McLain’s fault.
But the novel takes off in Paris. After the war, old social conventions no longer compel. The Hemingways and their foreign bohemian friends (there are no French people in their Paris) want to create, and go hang convention. Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald and his crazy wife Zelda play cameos. Here is the Paris that is in the heads of everyone who ever wanted to create, the city invoked by Gene Kelly in An American in Paris: “Brother, if you can’t paint in Paris, you’d better give up and marry the boss’s daughter.”
Paris ends up eating the Hemingway marriage. The couple speed from bohemian poverty to idle wealthiness, drink like the Fitzgeralds, and befriend Pauline Pfeiffer, who rapidly becomes the second of four Mrs Hemingways. This novel provides a wonderful portrait of divorce: how the energy that animates a marriage drains away. Richardson exits with Hemingway’s promise of all future royalties to The Sun Also Rises.
She remarried happily, lived to 87, and through Hemingway gained her own modest immortality. In smooth prose that trots sweetly along and sometimes achieves Hemingwayesque precision, McLain keeps their Paris alive.
Simon Kuper is an FT writer based in Paris