3.22.2011

Review: Paula McLain's The Paris Wife

Paula McLain's debut novel The Paris Wife explores Ernest Hemingway's first marriage through the eyes of his first wife, Hadley. Those of you who have read A Moveable Feast will be familiar with the characters and atmosphere of The Paris Wife, and McLain offers a complementary perspective to the one Hemingway provides in his memoir. This novel is fiction but at points it reads like nonfiction and the result is a pleasant view of 1920s Paris and of the artists who immortalized it.

The novel starts slowly, and Ernest never quite comes into focus, but Hadley is a reliable narrator and a sympathetic character. Efforts to offer Ernest's perspective through short narrative spurts only obstructs the flow of the narrative, though the reader does benefit from the information. I haven't read much on Ernest's life, but the novel reads consistently with what I know about him. This is an absorbing story, historically accurate, and vibrant in places - particularly the party scenes in Paris - but as a whole it lacks sparkle. Perhaps it's because Hadley's capitulation rankles, the characters aren't entirely believable, or it is because McLain rides the line between fact and fiction too closely. Still, this is sure to be popular with some book clubs and readers interested in a new version of literary history.

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