Hadley Richardson gets to speak in her own voice in The Paris Wife. The trick is, Richardson was real, but this is fiction. The accomplishment means more once you know that this resilient, supportive woman is often dispensed with in such biographies as The First Mrs. Ernest Hemingway. Richardson was 28 years old, with little hope left for romance, when the two met in Chicago in 1920; Hemingway was eight years younger and hoped for everything. She was the one married to the not-yet Great Writer and living with him in Paris when he was becoming ”Ernest Hemingway.” She was the one who bore his first child. She was also the one with the wherewithal to divorce her by-then-famous husband when he betrayed her with Pauline Pfeiffer — the mutual friend who would eventually become the second Mrs. Hemingway. (There were four.)
Paula McLain’s vivid, clear-voiced novel is a conjecture, an act of imaginary autobiography on the part of the author. Yet her biographical and geographical research is so deep, and her empathy for the real Hadley Richardson so forthright (without being intrusively femme partisan), that the account reads as very real indeed. Big things happen: Hadley is there as Hemingway meets Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald, as he writes The Sun Also Rises, as he falls in love with bullfighting. But a thousand less glamorous, more quotidian things happen too, as Hadley tries to find a way to live her own life (she’s a fine pianist) and support her moody husband, and keep up with hard-drinking company, and run a household in a country not her own. By making the ordinary come to life, McLain has written a beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s — as a wife and one’s own woman. A?