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In our time

A sympathethic reimagining of the life of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife and, perhaps, his greatest love

By Roberta Silman
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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One of our saddest American literary tales is the life of Ernest Hemingway, which begins with enormous promise and ends in depression, megalomania, and suicide at the age of 61. And although Hemingway sometimes behaved as though writing was a tennis match, down deep he knew that it was the search for truth and, at his best, worked very hard to achieve it, becoming the most famous and surely the most imitated American writer of the 20th century.

Instead of going to college he joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver during World War I, was wounded, and came home a “hero.’’ Shortly thereafter he met and fell in love with Hadley Richardson, who had attended Bryn Mawr for a year but was summoned home to care for her ailing mother. By the time they met she had lost both her parents, had a small trust fund, and dreamed of becoming a classical pianist. In the biographies — and Hemingway has been singularly lucky in his biographers — Hadley comes through as pleasant and very much in love with Ernest, but shadowy. In photographs she is very pretty, round-faced, and cheerful, and in “A Moveable Feast,’’ which Hemingway was revising when he died, he says, “I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.’’

There are so many questions about her. As an homage to Hadley, however, we now have Paula McLain’s novel “The Paris Wife.’’ The idea of regarding the great man through the sensibility of his wife or lover is certainly not new. Biographers like Brenda Maddox with “Nora,’’ about James Joyce’s wife, or Stacy Schiff with “Vera,’’ about Vladimir Nabokov’s, have done it; so did Nancy Horan in her novel “Loving Frank [Lloyd Wright].’’ But Nora and Vera and Mamah Cheney were all independent, interesting women, and Hadley had been portrayed in many memoirs and biographies of that time as less so.

So I approached this novel with a certain wariness.

But I am happy to report that McLain has brought Hadley to life in a novel that begins in a rush of early love and becomes stronger until its heartbreaking end. Paris, where the Hemingways lived for about five years starting in 1921, is wonderfully vivid, as are the sections about the bullfights in Spain and skiing in Austria. We get a real sense of their daily life: her valiant struggle to play the piano when she could, Ernest’s determination to become the greatest writer of his generation, his need to educate himself from Sylvia Beach’s lending library at her bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., his charisma and genius, yet also his stinginess and cruelty that could erupt with no warning. And although Hadley was eight years older (she was 30 and he 22 when they married), she is naive and out of her depth in the sexual morass of Paris in the ’20s. As she says:

“I would gladly have climbed out of my skin and into his that night, because I believed that was what love meant. . . It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking. I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.’’

After their son, John, whom they called Bumby, was born in 1923, things became more complicated; though sensitive and increasingly self-aware, Hadley is no match for the sly, sophisticated Pauline Pfeiffer and her sister Jinny. So we read, our hearts in our mouths, as this marriage, which seemed “hitched to the universe,’’ unravels.

McLain has done her homework and imagined what biographers can never allow themselves. The famous incident when Hadley loses the valise with all his stories is rendered with sympathy; so is Hadley’s discovery of her husband’s affair with Pauline and her later missteps before she realized that if she didn’t want to be a compliant wife in a marriage that included a mistress, as Ernest seemed to expect, she would have to divorce him. Her agonizing is very believable because the truth is that Pauline, who was Catholic, would never have agreed to be Hemingway’s mistress for long. My only reservations are with the overuse of the nicknames Hadley and Ernest used, and the sections from Ernest’s point of view, which don’t quite ring true.

Yet within the boundaries of a story based on reality McLain has given us a moving portrait of a woman slighted by history, a woman whose sad, perplexing story needed to be told, and whose triumph over it later in a happier marriage is also related with precision and grace.

Roberta Silman, the author of a children’s book, a story collection, and three novels, can be reached at rsilman@verizon.net.

THE PARIS WIFE
By Paula McLain
Ballantine, 320 pp., $25