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In The Paris Wife, author, Paula McClain, appeals to the reader with an interest in or knowledge of Ernest Hemingway, the Lost Generation, and circa 1920’s Paris, but she falls short in her attempt to retell Hemingway’s history from the new perspective of his wife, Hadley Richardson Hemingway. In choosing to re-invent the Hemingway’s story, McClain wisely draws an audience of readers interested in the topic, simultaneously she confronts comparisons to and assumptions about the real Ernest Hemingway. Those versed in the works of Hemingway and his contemporaries, find a fictional account conveyed by an average writer difficult to value when compared to the masterful works of the original sources available from this time period. The author forces the reader to choose to either accept her new account and detach from knowledge of the real story or stay connected to the Hemingway he or she already knows and be thoroughly disappointed. For the reader who wants to hold on to the real Hemingway, this text feels inauthentic.

McClain disappoints in conveying the story of the Hemingway family’s time spent in Europe from the perspective of his wife, because the reader is already familiar with Ernest and tries to absorb more knowledge about him, instead. The novel lacks in originality and vision, because it is meant to invest the reader in Hadley’s emotions and experiences, yet he or she keeps thinking about how the story molds Hemingway’s future as an author. McClain imagines and depicts Hadley’s private life as wife and mother, which is boring and dissatisfying in comparison to the experiences and events readers find in Hemingway’s writing from that time. McClain’s ideas are only interesting when she writes of Hadley’s experiences using Ernest as a guide; she discusses life events, meeting Ernest’s friends and colleagues, or the trips around Europe that are inspiration for his novels. But, she fails here too, because her fictional portrayals don’t do justice when measured against Hemingway’s writing and the wealth of biographical information available about him. Ernest’s character and history, whether based on fiction or fact, outshine Hadley’s.

While McClain tries to distance her version from Ernest, by focusing on Hadley, she ends up including small pieces of information about Ernest which are the only intriguing parts of the text. The reader compares McClain’s interpretations to Hemingway’s, because she builds the framework of her account of Hadley’s life around events recorded in Ernest’s writings. McClain energizes the reader with a description of a trip to Pamplona, Spain, for example. But, the reader recognizes that the emotions the scene evokes are stolen from Hemingway’s previous works. In fact, the life, color, sounds, textures are conjured by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. Without Hemingway’s work, McClain’s novel lacks substance and meaning. Unfortunately, the exciting and consequential parts are not McClain’s, alternately the reader values the well-known struggles, settings, and memories, because they are taken from Hemingway’s travels and writings.  

The Paris Wife is compelling and readable, at points, not because it is particularly well written. McClain hides her average novel behind the guise of a captivating time in history and an equally intriguing subject in famous author Hemingway, to gain readership and popularity. Ultimately, readers enjoy imagining the beauty and excitement of life and people from another time, and McClain helps make that happen.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

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