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The Paris Wife Reader’s Guide

By Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain


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.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In many ways, Hadley’s girlhood in St. Louis was a difficult and repressive experience. How do her early years prepare her to meet and fall in love with Ernest? What does life with Ernest offer her that she hasn’t encountered before? What are the risks?

2. Hadley and Ernest don’t get a lot of encouragement from their friends and family when they decide to marry. What seems to draw the two together? What are some of the strengths of their initial attraction and partnership? The challenges?

3. The Ernest Hemingway we meet in The Paris Wife—through Hadley’s eyes—is in many ways different from the ways we imagine him when faced with the largeness of his later persona. What do you see as his character strengths? Can you see what Hadley saw in him?

4. Throughout The Paris Wife, Hadley refers to herself as “Victorian” as opposed to “modern.” What are some of the ways she doesn’t feel like she fits into life in bohemian Paris? How does this impact her relationship with Ernest? Her self-esteem? What are some of the ways Hadley’s “old-fashioned” quality can be seen as a strength and not a weakness?

5. Hadley and Ernest’s marriage survived for many years in Jazz-Age Paris, an environment that had very little patience for monogamy and other traditional values. What in their relationship seems to sustain them? How does their marriage differ from those around them? Pound and Shakespear’s? Scott and Zelda’s?

6. Most of The Paris Wife is written in Hadley’s voice, but a few ­select passages come to us from Ernest’s point of view. What ­impact does getting Ernest’s perspective have on our understanding of their marriage? How does it affect your ability to understand him and his motivations in general?

7. How is Hadley challenged and restricted by her gender? Would those restrictions have changed if she had been an artist and not “merely” a wife?

8. One of the most wrenching scenes in the book is when Hadley loses a valise containing all of Ernest’s work to date. What kind of turning point does this mark for the Hemingway’s marriage? Do you think Ernest ever forgives her?

9. Hadley and Ernest had similar upbringings in many ways. What are the parallels, and how do these affect the choices Hadley makes as a wife and mother?

10. In The Paris Wife, when Ernest receives his contract for In Our Time, Hadley says, “He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy” (page 195). How did fame ­affect Ernest and his relationship with Hadley?

11. How does the time and place—Paris in the twenties—affect Ernest and Hadley’s marriage? What impact does the war, for instance, have on the choices and behavior of the expatriate artists surrounding the Hemingways? Do you see Ernest changing in response to the world around him? How, and how does Hadley feel about those changes?

12. What was the nature of the relationship between Hadley and Pauline Pfeiffer? Were they legitimately friends? How do you see Pauline taking advantage of her intimate position in the Hemingways’ life? Do you think Hadley is naïve for not suspecting Pauline of having designs on Ernest earlier? Why or why not?

13. It seems as if Ernest tries to make his marriage work even after Pauline arrives on the scene. What would it have cost Hadley to stick it out with Ernest no matter what? Is there a way she could have fought harder for her marriage?

14. In many ways, Hadley is a very different person at the end of the novel than the girl she was when she first encountered Ernest by chance at a party. How do you understand her ­trajectory and transformation? Are there any ways she essentially doesn’t change?

15. When Hemingway’s biographer Carlos Baker interviewed Had­ley Richardson near the end of her life, he expected her to be bitter, and yet she persisted in describing Ernest as a “prince.” How can she have continued to love and admire him after the way he hurt her?

16. Ernest Hemingway spent the last months of his life tenderly ­reliving his first marriage in the pages his memoir, A Moveable Feast. In fact, it was the last thing he wrote before his death. Do you think he realized what he’d truly lost with Hadley?

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