The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
I recently read The Paris Wife by Paula McClain a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson and their years living in Paris in the 19020′s. I then immediately followed it up with A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s posthumous memoir about the same time. Both essentially cover the same subject but are told from opposite perspectives, giving a pretty well-rounded view of what Hemingway was like as a young man. I’ve captured what I think are the key similarities and differences about each book below.
The Paris Wife
- This book is told from Hadley’s perspective and focuses more on her and Hemingway’s marriage than A Moveable Feast does, but I also got more insight into Hemingway’s writing process than I did from A Moveable Feast.
- It was interesting to see Hemingway from another angle. I typically think of him as the quintessential man’s man – likes fishing, bull-fighting, and drinking, and just lived hard in general (kind of like Teddy Roosevelt with a smattering of alcoholism). But through The Paris Wife, it was clear that Hemingway was passionate about his writing, had clear ideas about what constituted good writing and slaved away over his stories to make them good.
- It was also clear that he loved Hadley very much in his own blustery way.
- I found this book to be quietly good – each incident and story is told in a fairly calm and steady manner, which was reflective of Hadley’s personality. It felt like McClain’s writing style matched who Hadley was as a person. And even though the book was written from Hadley’s perspective, it was very much a story about Hadley and Hemingway and his impact on her.
A Moveable Feast
- A Moveable Feast is a series short vignettes and less of a narrative story.
- Hemingway’s book is not really about their marriage, but more about his experiences while living in Paris. There are brief mentions of Hadley throughout the book, but their relationship is not the primary theme. It’s more about what it was like to be a struggling writer in 1920′s Paris surrounded by a lot of other semi-struggling artists trying to make a go of it.
- It’s been awhile since I have read anything by Hemingway and I’ll admit, I had to get about a third of the way through the book before I adjusted to his style. He is all about short, straightforward statements and does not use flowery language. That’s not to say that The Paris Wife is flowery, but it is a novel so it’s more descriptive. Plus, it wasn’t written by Hemingway.
- For me, the most interesting part of the book was that he devotes all of maybe five pages at the very end to the demise of his marriage. And he frames it up in a way that makes it sound like his marriage-ending affair was something that just happened to him, like getting hit by a car, as opposed to something that he had a direct and complicit role in. The affair is kind of framed in a similar way in The Paris Wife – a freak occurence that just happened to them – but at least in the novel I saw the implications of that freak occurence. Hemingway does not really reflect on what the affair meant or how it impacted him or Hadley in A Moveable Feast.
I will admit that reading The Paris Wife first probably primed me to go into A Moveable Feast with a biased perspective – I expected more of Hemingway’s book to be about Hadley and was a little disappointed that she played such a minor role in it. The little that he does include about the ending of their marriage felt so tacked-on that it took me surprise. By the time I got to the last chapter, I figured he wasn’t going to mention it all because Hadley had received so little attention up to that point.
As a sidenote: something these books had in common was that they both made me want to go back and read The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, show up in both books and I got some interesting perspective on who they were and what their relationship was like.
In a nutshell: I would probably recommend The Paris Wife over A Moveable Feast, but I realize that it’s not really fair to compare them side-by-side. Taken together though, they do give a unique view of Hemingway as he was making his way in the literary world.
- The Paris Wife: Three and a half stars
- A Moveable Feast: Two and a half stars