This is a book that left me feeling raw. Hadley Hemingway was Ernest Hemingway's first wife, the wife he took to Paris to pursue his career as an author. In the book she is a likeable and vibrant character who puts up with far too much from her husband. This account is fictional but draws all its characters and major events from the couple's real life.
There are no spoilers in this post; even if you know nothing about Hemingway's personal life, the title alone should tell you that this marriage didn't last til death did them part. Ernest Hemingway was an amazing writer and there has never been anyone else quite like him when it came to literature or living such a ridiculously aggressive life.
***Just kidding, there are some possible spoilers***
Some of what follows could ruin things for you if you only know the basics of the story and want to leave yourself some surprises. If you want to read the book and find out for yourself, keep scrolling until after the Eiffel Tower.
The trick that Paula McLain pulls in this book is pretty impressive. I was only briefly frustrated with Hadley during a period where she, Ernest, their toddler, and Ernest's mistress are basically living together. The rest of the time I could see things from Hadley's perspective and understood why she was putting up with Ernest's nonsense. Hadley makes it clear how miserable she was during that time, but finds it impossible to leave Ernest yet because she still loves him very much. She knows he has been influenced by their friendship with many bohemians who live in similar situations and almost allows herself to be talked into settling down this way permanently. This is a woman I should have wanted to shake some sense into, but instead found myself sympathizing with.
I found the disintegration of their relationship very upsetting for many
reasons. Neither of them were made happier by it, according to the
book. Hadley would have loved to stay married to him (minus the tramp) for the rest of her life. And Ernest certainly wasn't happier with any of the string of women he married and ran around with after he and Hadley were through. Ernest ends up with a gun in his mouth, which is an inevitable end for someone as wrecked as he was. Hadley does at least have a happy second marriage which survives the test of time.
Their breakup also made me kind of hate Ernest. I don't want to hate Papa Hemingway, the golden god of fly fishing and bullfights, but my goodness that man must have been a selfish jerk. For all his machismo, Ernest couldn't be a man when it really counted. He could watched the most violent encounters at Pamplona and lord it over the "lesser" men who are sickened when a man or an animal spills its blood into the dust. But he couldn't bring himself to be honest with his wife. He could drink and brag and act like a tough guy, but he became a quivering idiot at the thought of losing one of his two women. In the end, the man couldn't even face his own life, so how could he be expected to treat anyone else decently?
It's a good book, it truly is. And I'm glad I read it. But prepare yourself for some rough emotional waters. It's a testament to McLain's writing that I was so upset. I generally don't get upset when bad things happen to people in books (Game of Thrones is totally different, so just shut up), however Hadley got my sympathy. She was a real woman to whom these real things happened and McLain gets inside her head and inhabits her perspective, thoughts, and emotions. At the end of the book the first Mrs. Hemingway feels like a dear friend you want to protect and who makes you want to be a better person, which is exactly what Ernest says about her late in the book as things get very rough. Let's hope she does a better job of improving us than she did with him.