Before I read this book, I knew very little about Ernest Hemingway and even less about his wives. That had changed by the time I reached the end.
Paula Mclain’s book tells the story of Ernest and his first wife, Hadley. It is told from her point of view and chronicles their initial meeting, subsequent courtship, marriage and ultimate heartbreak.
Much of the story is set in Paris during the time of prohibition, although alcohol flows freely throughout (including the then illegal absinthe!). It follows Ernest’s struggle for recognition as an author and Hadley’s unfaltering adoration and support of him through a succession of breakdowns, occasional highs and many lows.
McLain’s writing totally draws you into Hadley’s world and you can’t help but feel an emotional connection as the story of their marriage unfolds. However, Hadley’s passiveness became increasingly frustrating and I found myself less and less sympathetic towards her as the story unfolded. She almost completely loses her identity as she devotes herself entirely to Ernest and accepts his outrageous actions towards their marriage even though it is ripping her apart. The book becomes more and more difficult to read as their marriage crumbles and their once so beautiful relationship becomes ugly, fuelled by copious drinking. All their relationships seem superficial- perhaps that is what they were like and I just didn’t like them much!
McLain stresses in the end notes that her work is fictional and I did find the Hemingways became increasingly caricature like as the story progressed; was Hadley really that passive and did Ernest really act so appallingly? Their pet name for each other, “Tatie”, along with other pet names given to their friends added to my exasperation. I am undecided whether or not to read his memoirs of his time in Paris (A Moveable Feast) to see how that compares.
That said, the love story of their early relationship and marriage was beautifully written and the descriptions of life at the time obviously well researched; the images conjured up of the many parties, the skiing and the cafes were, at times, breathtaking.
As a historical romance the story ticks the boxes, for readers who are fans of Hemingway or want to know more about his life I wonder whether this would meet their expectations.