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The Paris Wifeby Paula McLain
Reading Group Guide
For many years, I taught high school English and had the very particular experience of treading through canonical Hemingway stories such as “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” with mostly baffled sophomores. I knew Hemingway the writer well enough to give a lecture on his theories of grace under pressure, but Hemingway the man was eclipsed by the puffed-up details of his mythology—the big-game hunting, bullfighting, boozing, and philandering. I’d read his memoir, A Moveable Feast, at one point in my own undergraduate education, but all memory of the book had long since disappeared into the oatmeal-like morass of things I’d read but didn’t remember for seminars. And so when I picked up A Moveable Feast again, just a few years ago, I came to the book with entirely fresh eyes, and fell madly in love. As I turned the pages, my hands shook. I felt utterly transported into the world of 1920s Paris, and into the smaller, more profound (for me) world of Hemingway’s first marriage, to Hadley Richardson.
Hadley is the heroine of A Moveable Feast. In small scenes and exchanges of dialogue, Hemingway renders Hadley and their connection with a tenderness and poignancy that moved me, but also set my writer’s mind ticking. Just who was Hadley Richardson? How had these two young lovers met, and what was it like to be married to Ernest Hemingway before he became the writer and near-mythological figure we know so well? My curiosity was spurred even further by the fact that when he wrote A Moveable Feast at the tail end of the 1950s and early ’60s (it was published in 1964, after his death), he was well into his fourth marriage. Those early days in Paris were nearly forty years behind him and yet, in the final pages he writes of Hadley, “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”
What had happened between these two, who’d clearly had an extraordinary connection? I simply had to know, and so began a process of research that ultimately led me to write The Paris Wife. Along the way, I searched out multiple biographies of both Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, read and reread his early stories and novels, and visited the Hemingway archive at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. It’s like a shrine: a lovely small room with some of his furniture, an animal skin rug, art, and personal effects. And of course they have all of his works in manuscript form, as well as the bulk of his correspondence. I went there expressly to read Hadley’s letters to him during their eleven-month whirlwind courtship in 1920–21, and those are amazing. Her voice is incredible—charming, candid, funny, romantic—and I began to believe I could write the book I was dying to write, because I’d found and understood her.
Beginning to truly hear a character’s voice is like finding a piece of magic string that pulls you inside her consciousness, and helps you see the world through her very particular point of view, unfolding the story as only she can tell it. Hadley’s speaking voice in my novel isn’t the real flesh-and-blood woman’s in a literal way. I didn’t have permission to use Hadley’s words verbatim and didn’t even search that permission out, because I was writing a novel, not a biography, and wanted the freedom to discover and invent beyond the literal scope of her paper trail. But reading her letters helped me hear her clearly as I worked, and what I ultimately developed is an alchemical combination of her voice and my own.
Because I was essentially living inside Hadley’s character as I worked on the book, I also began to fall hard for young Hemingway. I couldn’t help myself, really, because I was getting to know him as she did, slowly and intimately. Through her eyes, I found him to be incredibly likeable—vulnerable, and full of self-doubt and impossibly high ideals. I began to sympathize with him more and more as the obscuring vestiges of his persona began to fall away—the machismo and swagger and big game safaris, those details that suggested he was merely one of his own troubled characters. I was left with a deep curiosity about who Hemingway really was. What were the forces that pushed on him psychically and emotionally? How could he betray Hadley, his best friend and muse?
Trying to get to the bottom of those questions led me to write a few select passages from Ernest’s perspective. This was a terrifying proposition. Hemingway’s style is so iconic and recognizable to us, I worried some readers might misunderstand and think I was in competition with him, pitting my language against his. (As if I’d even try!) I’m so glad I pushed through and didn’t give in to cowardice, because I believe the final book is truer and more balanced for showing his thoughts and feelings. Not all readers will be won over by my version of Hemingway, but I hope the majority will feel they’ve glimpsed his complexity and some portion of his humanity. He was such a big person and, as Hadley once said in an interview, had “more sides to him than any geography book could ever chart.”
I’m often asked if I traveled to Paris for my research, and the answer is yes. After a fashion. I’d never attempted a historical novel before, and felt I needed to focus completely on my writing in order to do it well. So I quit my teaching job and got serious about my writing routine. From nine to three, five days a week, you could find me tucked into a brown velveteen chair at my neighborhood Starbucks in Cleveland, where I live. This was in late 2008. I had no idea the economy was about to take a nosedive, and that it was the worst possible time to downshift in my career. I was dying to get to Paris, and yet I didn’t have the funds to go around the corner. My savings were dwindling rapidly, but I pushed all my anxiety to the side and surrendered to the demands of the book. A Starbucks in Cleveland is hardly a Parisian café—and yet in a way that didn’t matter. Every day’s work was like traveling back in time. I slipped through a miraculous portal to the Boulevard Montparnasse, where Hemingway was writing in a worn blue notebook and staring out the window into the rain. Hours vanished in a blink as I was deliciously swept away.
By the time I finished the first draft seven months later, I had six hundred dollars in my savings account and was on the verge of applying for a job at Whole Foods. But because life is very good, the book found a wonderful home at Ballantine, and I could keep working on it, now with the help of my brilliant editor, Susanna Porter. In the summer of 2010, when the novel was finally complete and about to go into production, I didn’t have to think twice about what I would do to celebrate: I would go to France and Spain, to the places I’d already been to over and over in my imagination, as I traced the Hemingways’ travels during their years of marriage—from Paris to San Sebastian, then Pamplona, then Antibes.
Connecting to Ernest and Hadley’s experiences in a physical way was beyond remarkable. I stood outside the chipped blue door of their first apartment in Paris, at 74 Cardinal Lemoine, where they arrived as newlyweds in the winter of 1921. Hadley’s letters described the apartment as dark and cramped, “full of funny angles and corners.” I wasn’t brave enough to ring the bell to see if the current tenant would allow me up, but even if I had been, it wouldn’t have been the same apartment where Hadley moved the furniture from room to room and, pushing hard against homesickness, tried to make a home. That space I already knew by heart.
Writing The Paris Wife has been the most rewarding experience of my professional life—and it’s a gift that keeps on giving. When I travel for events and talk to book clubs, I’m overwhelmed by readers’ passionate responses to the book, and to Hadley in particular. I love it when book club members confess to having heated late-night discussions over glasses of nice French wine: How could she let him get away with that? How could she have done otherwise? Or how, once they’ve turned the last page of the book, they immediately Google Hadley—to see her face and to trace the details of the rest of her life, to know that things ended well for her. She’s as alive for them as she is for me—a real and complex woman who struggled bravely with choices that loom for all of us, and with the Herculean feat of staying true to herself when the stakes grew impossibly high. Talking to readers who’ve just come away from the book—tearful or exhilarated but always ready to hop the next flight to Charles de Gaulle—keeps me ever connected to Hadley, Ernest, and their stirring love story. The journey goes on, and I’m happy and grateful you’ve come along for the ride.
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