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'Paris Wife' fictionalizes the first Mrs. Hemmingway

| Sunday, March 6, 2011

Yet another woman-behind-the-famous-man historical novel?

Yes, but Paula McLain's "The Paris Wife" -- about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's spurned first wife -- comes with a pedigree.

Its attractive jacket features an eye-catching blurb from Nancy Horan, who wrote the 2007 best seller "Loving Frank," a book club favorite about Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress.

In fact, "Paris Wife" was snapped up for the considerable sum of half a million dollars (according to The New York Observer) by Horan's editor, Susanna Porter, who no doubt hopes "Loving Ernest" will be the next "Loving Frank."

Women and book groups are going to eat up this novel, but some members may be hating Ernest by the time the last wine glass is drained.

Which isn't really fair. McLain pulls off a delicate balancing act, making the macho Hemingway of myth a complex and sympathetic figure.

We understand utterly why Hadley falls for the good-looking young writer and continues to love him, even after he has left her for her chic friend, Pauline Pfeiffer, the second Mrs. Hemingway. (And there were two more to come.)

"The Paris Wife" takes place in the hopelessly romantic 1920s. Hadley, a 28-year-old virgin, and Hemingway, a terribly ambitious 21-year-old wounded in the First World War, start their lives together in France.

McLain smartly explores Hadley's ambivalence about her role as supportive wife to a budding genius, and the novel is at its most powerful and devastating in its portrayal of two key moments in the marriage: when Hadley leaves a valise with her husband's manuscripts on a train, only to see them stolen, and later, when she realizes he has left her out of his first novel, "The Sun Also Rises."

Ouch. It's not easy being a member of the Literary First Wives' Club.

If there is one problem with "Wife," it's that McLain's Hemingway is so charismatic you often want to shoo poor insecure Hadley off the stage.

As Hadley says when her husband disappears on a newspaper assignment: "Ernest was such a big person, metaphorically speaking. He took up all the air in a room and magnetized and drew everyone to him. I became so aware of (his) absence, it was if the lack of him had moved into the apartment with me."

Exactly. The reader anxiously wonders when he'll be back in town.

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