Companion Reads: ‘The Paris Wife’ & ‘The Sun Also Rises’

October 8, 2015 at 2:05 am 2 comments

Part of Literary Transgressions’ Companion Reads series, which pairs two complementary books together for your reading pleasure.


Ernest Hemingway kind of haunted my summer. I’m not sure why, but he seemed to turn up everywhere. He was on my milk carton in the Black Forest. He had a dedicated corner in a bookstore in Switzerland. And there was a building named after him in rural Germany.

All of this Hemingway nonsense started when I downloaded Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife on my Kindle to kick off my travel reading. I was in Paris, I couldn’t get access to Edward Rutherfurd’s Paris, and I wanted something topical. Thus, The Paris Wife. I honestly didn’t know it was even about Hemingway until I started it and certainly didn’t choose it for that reason. Prior to this summer, Hemingway had long been on my “No Thank You, Male White Author” list. But The Paris Wife changed all that.

McLain’s book tells the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their time together in Paris. It also neatly tells the tale of Hemingway’s rise from pet of Gertrude Stein to established Author well on his way to becoming the near-mythic “Papa.”

It’s an interesting time, but a slow-moving book with an oftentimes placid heroine at its heart. Even at moments of great distress, Hadley never seems to be particularly ruffled. She talks about feelings, but mainly opts to bury them, and take any available higher, and often blandly supportive, road available to her. By the end of her time with Ernest, she seems almost ashamed of her simultaneous desire to fight for her marriage and let it go, as she’s let go so many smaller injustices and mental injuries.

This type of protagonist could make for a very plodding book. Fortunately, McLain’s vivid portrait of Paris in the 1920s and the inevitably oversized character of Hemingway himself make sure the book doesn’t drag. Ernest is easy to dislike in almost every possible measure — selfish, often drunk, and utterly careless of others — but he makes for an incredible counterpoint to McLain’s Hadley.


But more than anything else, The Paris Wife made me want to read some actual Hemingway. (No mean feat given my long-standing aversion to his writing.) By the end of it, I was actively craving the fiery, powerful prose teased by Ernest’s character. So, upon returning to American shores, I rifled around and found my mother’s copy of The Sun Also Rises, the breakthrough, star-making book he is writing all through The Paris Wife, the one that utterly erases Hadley from the fictional retelling of their trips to Spain and hurts her so deeply.

What can I say? It was stunning.

I was positively shocked by how good Rises was and how much I liked it. Like I said, my previous experiences reading Hemingway were so unappealing that I had him on my list of authors never to bother with again. But here was his work, as vivid and bright and well-phrased as I could possibly have wished for and more. I found myself comparing his writing to Fitzgerald, who is also blessed with the ability to occasionally phrase something so perfectly that it rings as pure truth.

So I owe Paula McLain one — I would never have picked up, and loved, something by Ernest Hemingway if not for her book. The two go perfectly together, providing as a good “he said/she said” as any two works of fiction can. They also made me look forward to reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which is his memoir written at the end of his life, and published after his death, about the same time period.


Entry filed under: Classics, Historical Fiction. Tags: , , , , , , .

‘Me Before You’ by JoJo Moyes ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kate  |  October 11, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    Yes! The Sun Also Rises is excellent — A Moveable Feast, more so. Why The Old Man and the Sea makes reading lists, I’ll never know.

  • 2. A Spring Reading Spree | Literary Transgressions  |  May 5, 2016 at 6:36 am

    […] run-in with The Old Man and the Sea in high school, I’ve recently been giving him a second try. And while his style isn’t always my speed (and his personality, frankly, seems totally […]


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