The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

In high school, I had to read some of the great American novels for my junior year English class.  You know the ones, you probably had to read them as well.  We wound our way through The Great GatsbyThe Sun Also RisesOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Invisible Man.  Okay, so maybe the last two don’t exactly fit the bill for the great American novel, but they made up part of the canon of my high school literature experience.  I guess I should add that they luckily now make up part of my cultural scheme of reference because, without The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby I would have been completely confused whilst reading The Paris Wife.

Okay, Midnight In Paris might have helped a touch as well.

Paul McLain’s The Paris Wife tells the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, from the time they meet until they break up.  It’s the story of their relationship narrated through Hadley’s eyes.  It’s an interesting narration technique, but does require you know a little bit about Hemingway’s biography before jumping in.  If there was a time line in front of the book, or a quick fact-sheet entitled ‘stupid questions about Hemingway that everyone has but no one asks,’ it would have been very helpful.

The book takes place during the inter-war years, bouncing back and forth between the US, Paris and Spain (mostly — surprise, surprise — Pamplona).  While the bulk of the action is in Paris, the city doesn’t make up as much of a protagonist as one might expect for the title.  Indeed, the city seems almost incidental in the narration.  Sure, Paris plays a large role in their relationship, but that role is more through what we know about the couple’s history as opposed to what the story tells us.

I liked the book okay, but didn’t fall in love with it.  This was partly because I’m not that interested in Hemingway, partly because I didn’t know about the time and partly because I found the story telling erratic.  The voice alternated between allusions to Hemingway (long series of quotes with periods clearly missing and no indication as to who is talking) and the narrators own, unique voice.  I wanted to hear her voice more.  Although I was interested in the fact that McLain chose to allude to Hemingway, I felt that there were probably more allusions than I knew and my enjoyment of the book was impacted by my inability to discern all of them.

Overall, The Paris Wife is an interesting read for those interested in Hemingway or the lost generation, but a bit difficult for others to relate to.  There’s a surprising amount of previous knowledge that you probably aren’t getting in school in order to truly enjoy this book.

Have you read Hemingway or any other author from the lost generation?  What do you think?

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