“A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s—as a wife and as one’s own woman.”—Entertainment Weekly
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY People • Chicago Tribune • NPR • The Philadelphia Inquirer • Kirkus Reviews • The Toronto Sun • BookPage
Chicago, 1920: Hadley Richardson is a quiet twenty-eight-year-old who has all but given up on love and happiness—until she meets Ernest Hemingway. Following a whirlwind courtship and wedding, the pair set sail for Paris, where they become the golden couple in a lively and volatile group—the fabled “Lost Generation”—that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Though deeply in love, the Hemingways are ill prepared for the hard-drinking, fast-living, and free-loving life of Jazz Age Paris. As Ernest struggles to find the voice that will earn him a place in history and pours himself into the novel that will become The Sun Also Rises, Hadley strives to hold on to her sense of self as her roles as wife, friend, and muse become more challenging. Eventually they find themselves facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage—a deception that will lead to the unraveling of everything they’ve fought so hard for.
A heartbreaking portrayal of love and torn loyalty, The Paris Wife is all the more poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.44(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.94(d)|
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The very first thing he does is fix me with those wonderfully brown eyes and say, "It's possible I'm too drunk to judge, but you might have something there."
It's October 1920 and jazz is everywhere. I don't know any jazz, so I'm playing Rachmaninoff. I can feel a flush beginning in my cheeks from the hard cider my dear pal Kate Smith has stuffed down me so I'll relax. I'm getting there, second by second. It starts in my fingers, warm and loose, and moves along my nerves, rounding through me. I haven't been drunk in over a yearnot since my mother fell seriously illand I've missed the way it comes with its own perfect glove of fog, settling snugly and beautifully over my brain. I don't want to think and I don't want to feel, either, unless it's as simple as this beautiful boy's knee inches from mine.
The knee is nearly enough on its own, but there's a whole package of a man attached, tall and lean, with a lot of very dark hair and a dimple in his left cheek you could fall into. His friends call him Hemingstein, Oinbones, Bird, Nesto, Wemedge, anything they can dream up on the spot. He calls Kate Stut or Butstein (not very flattering!), and another fellow Little Fever, and yet another Horney or the Great Horned Article. He seems to know everyone, and everyone seems to know the same jokes and stories. They telegraph punch lines back and forth in code, lightning fast and wisecracking. I can't keep up, but I don't mind really. Being near these happy strangers is like a powerful transfusion of good cheer.
When Kate wanders over from the vicinity of the kitchen, he points his perfect chin at me and says, "What should we name our new friend?"
"Hash," Kate says.
"Hashedad's better," he says. "Hasovitch."
"And you're Bird?" I ask.
"Wem," Kate says.
"I'm the fellow who thinks someone should be dancing." He smiles with everything he's got, and in very short order, Kate's brother Kenley has kicked the living room carpet to one side and is manning the Victrola. We throw ourselves into it, dancing our way through a stack of records. He's not a natural, but his arms and legs are free in their joints, and I can tell that he likes being in his body. He's not the least shy about moving in on me either. In no time at all our hands are damp and clenched, our cheeks close enough that I can feel the very real heat of him. And that's when he finally tells me his name is Ernest.
"I'm thinking of giving it away, though. Ernest is so dull, and Hemingway? Who wants a Hemingway?"
Probably every girl between here and Michigan Avenue, I think, looking at my feet to keep from blushing. When I look up again, he has his brown eyes locked on me.
"Well? What do you think? Should I toss it out?"
"Maybe not just yet. You never know. A name like that could catch on, and where would you be if you'd ditched it?"
"Good point. I'll take it under consideration."
A slow number starts, and without asking, he reaches for my waist and scoops me toward his body, which is even better up close. His chest is solid and so are his arms. I rest my hands on them lightly as he backs me around the room, past Kenley cranking the Victrola with glee, past Kate giving us a long, curious look. I close my eyes and lean into Ernest, smelling bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cottonand everything about this moment is so sharp and lovely, I do something completely out of character and just let myself have it.
There's a song from that time by Nora Bayes called "Make Believe," which might have been the most lilting and persuasive treatise on self-delusion I'd ever heard. Nora Bayes was beautiful, and she sang with a trembling voice that told you she knew things about love. When she advised you to throw off all the old pain and worry and heartache and smilewell, you believed she'd done this herself. It wasn't a suggestion but a prescription. The song must have been a favorite of Kenley's, too. He played it three times the night I arrived in Chicago, and each time I felt it speaking directly to me: Make believe you are glad when you're sorry. Sunshine will follow the rain.
I'd had my share of rain. My mother's illness and death had weighed on me, but the years before had been heavy, too. I was only twenty-eight, and yet I'd been living like a spinster on the second floor of my older sister Fonnie's house while she and her husband Roland and their four dear beasts lived downstairs. I hadn't meant for things to stay this way. I assumed I'd get married or find a career like my school friends. They were harried young mothers now, schoolteachers or secretaries or aspiring ad writers, like Kate. Whatever they were, they were living their lives, out there doing it, making their mistakes. Somehow I'd gotten stuck along the waylong before my mother's illnessand I didn't know how to free myself exactly.
Sometimes, after playing an hour of passable Chopin, I'd lie down on the carpet in front of the piano and stare at the ceiling, feeling whatever energy I'd had while playing leave my body. It was terrible to feel so empty, as if I were nothing. Why couldn't I be happy? And just what was happiness anyway? Could you fake it, as Nora Bayes insisted? Could you force it like a spring bulb in your kitchen, or rub up against it at a party in Chicago and catch it like a cold?
Ernest Hemingway was still very much a stranger to me, but he seemed to do happiness all the way up and through. There wasn't any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness. His eyes sparked all over everything, all over me as he leaned back on his heel and spun me toward him. He tucked me fast against his chest, his breath warm on my neck and hair.
"How long have you known Stut?" he asked.
"We went to grade school together in St. Louis, at Mary Institute. What about you?"
"You want my whole educational pedigree? It's not much."
"No," I laughed. "Tell me about Kate."
"That would fill a book, and I'm not sure I'm the fellow to write it." His voice was light, still teasing, but he'd stopped smiling.
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing," he said. "The short and sweet part is our families both have summer cottages in Horton Bay. That's Michigan to a southerner like you."
"Funny that we both grew up with Kate."
"I was ten to her eighteen. Let's just say I was happy to grow up alongside her. With a nice view of the scenery."
"You had a crush, in other words."
"No, those are the right words," he said, then looked away.
I'd obviously touched some kind of nerve in him, and I didn't want to do it again. I liked him smiling and laughing and loose. In fact, my response to him was so powerful that I already knew I would do a lot to keep him happy. I changed the subject fast.
"Are you from Chicago?"
"Oak Park. That's right up the street."
"For a southerner like me."
"Well, you're a bang-up dancer, Oak Park."
"You too, St. Louis."
The song ended and we parted to catch our breath. I moved to one side of Kenley's long living room while Ernest was quickly swallowed up by admirerswomen, naturally. They seemed awfully young and sure of themselves with their bobbed hair and brightly rouged cheeks. I was closer to a Victorian holdout than a flapper. My hair was still long, knotted at the nape of my neck, but it was a good rich auburn color, and though my dress wasn't up to the minute, my figure made up for that, I thought. In fact, I'd been feeling very good about the way I looked the whole time Ernest and I were dancinghe was so appreciative with those eyes!but now that he was surrounded by vivacious women, my confidence was waning.
"You seemed awfully friendly with Nesto," Kate said, appearing at my elbow.
"Maybe. Can I have the rest of that?" I pointed to her drink.
"It's rather volcanic." She grimaced and passed it over.
"What is it?" I put my face to the rim of the glass, which was close enough. It smelled like rancid gasoline.
"Something homemade. Little Fever handed it to me in the kitchen. I'm not sure he didn't cook it up in his shoe."
Over against a long row of windows, Ernest began parading back and forth in a dark blue military cape someone had dug up. When he turned, the cape lifted and flared dramatically.
"That's quite a costume," I said.
"He's a war hero, didn't he tell you?"
I shook my head.
"I'm sure he'll get to it eventually." Her face didn't give anything away, but her voice had an edge.
"He told me he used to pine for you."
"Really?" There was the tone again. "He's clearly over it now."
I didn't know what had come between these two old friends, but whatever it was, it was obviously complicated and well under wraps. I let it drop.
"I like to think I'm the kind of girl who'll drink anything," I said, "but maybe not from a shoe."
"Right. Let's hunt something up." She smiled and flashed her green eyes at me, and became my Kate again, not grim at all, and off we went to get very drunk and very merry.
I found myself watching for Ernest the rest of the night, waiting for him to appear and stir things up, but he didn't. He must have slipped away at some point. One by one nearly everyone did, so that by 3:00 a.m. the party had been reduced to dregs, with Little Fever as the tragic centerpiece. He was passed out on the davenport with long dark wool socks stretched over his face and his hat perched on his crossed feet.
"To bed, to bed," Kate said with a yawn.
"Is that Shakespeare?"
"I don't know. Is it?" She hiccuped, and then laughed. "I'm off to my own little hovel now. Will you be all right here?"
"Of course. Kenley's made up a lovely room for me." I walked her to the door, and as she sidled into her coat, we made a date for lunch the next day.
"You'll have to tell me all about things at home. We haven't had a moment to talk about your mother. It must have been awful for you, poor creatch."
"Talking about it will only make me sad again," I said. "But this is perfect. Thanks for begging me to come."
"I worried you wouldn't."
"Me too. Fonnie said it was too soon."
"Yes, well, she would say that. Your sister can be smart about some things, Hash, but about you, nearly never."
I gave her a grateful smile and said good night. Kenley's apartment was warrenlike and full of boarders, but he'd given me a large and very clean room, with a four-poster bed and a bureau. I changed into my nightdress then took down my hair and brushed it, sorting through the highlights of the evening. No matter how much fun I'd had with Kate or how good it was to see her after all these years, I had to admit that number one on my list of memorable events was dancing with Ernest Hemingway. I could still feel his brown eyes and his electric, electrifying energybut what had his attentions meant? Was he babysitting me, as Kate's old friend? Was he still gone on Kate? Was she in love with him? Would I even see him again?
My mind was suddenly such a hive of unanswerable questions that I had to smile at myself. Wasn't this exactly what I had wanted coming to Chicago, something new to think about? I turned to face the mirror over the bureau. Hadley Richardson was still there, with her auburn waves and thin lips and pale round eyesbut there was something new, too, a glimmer of potential. It was just possible the sun was on its way. In the meantime, I would hum Nora Bayes and do my damnedest to make believe.
The next morning, I walked into the kitchen to find Ernest leaning lazily against the refrigerator, reading the morning newspaper and devouring half a loaf of bread.
"Did you sleep here?" I asked, unable to mask my surprise at seeing him.
"I'm boarding here. Just for a while, until things take off for me."
"What do you mean to do?"
"Make literary history, I guess."
"Gee," I said, impressed all over again by his confidence and conviction. You couldn't fake that. "What are you working on now?"
He pulled a face. "Now I'm writing trash copy for Firestone tires, but I mean to write important stories or a novel. Maybe a book of poetry."
That threw me. "I thought poets were quiet and shrinking and afraid of sunlight," I said, sitting down.
"Not this one." He came over to join me at the table, turning his chair around to straddle it. "Who's your favorite writer?"
"Henry James, I suppose. I seem to read him over and over."
"Well, aren't you sweetly square?"
"Am I? Who's your favorite writer?"
"Ernest Hemingway." He grinned. "Anyway, there're lots of famous writers in Chicago. Kenley knows Sherwood Anderson. Heard of him?"
"Sure. He wrote Winesburg, Ohio."
"That's the one."
"Well, with your nerve, you can probably do anything at all."
He looked at me seriously, as if he were trying to gauge whether I was teasing or placating him. I wasn't. "How do you take your coffee, Hasovitch?" he finally said.
"Hot," I said, and he grinned his grin, elastic and devastating.
When Kate arrived for our lunch date, Ernest and I were still in the kitchen talking away. I hadn't yet changed out of my dressing gown, and there she was sharp and fresh in a red wool hat and coat.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I won't be a minute."
"Take your time, you deserve a little indolence," she said, but seemed impatient with me just the same.
I went off to dress, and when I came back, Kate was alone in the room.
"Where did Nesto run off to?"
"I haven't the faintest," Kate said. And then, because she clearly read disappointment in my face, "Should I have invited him along?"
"Don't be silly. This is our day."
What People are Saying About This
“A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s—as a wife and as one’s own woman.”—Entertainment Weekly
“[Paula] McLain has brought Hadley [Hemingway] to life in a novel that begins in a rush of early love. . . . A moving portrait of a woman slighted by history, a woman whose . . . story needed to be told.”—The Boston Globe
“The Paris Wife creates the kind of out-of-body reading experience that dedicated book lovers yearn for, nearly as good as reading Hemingway for the first time—and it doesn’t get much better than that.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Exquisitely evocative . . . This absorbing, illuminating book gives us an intimate view of a sympathetic and perceptive woman, the striving writer she married, the glittering and wounding Paris circle they were part of. . . . McLain reinvents the story of Hadley and Ernest’s romance with the lucid grace of a practiced poet.”—The Seattle Times
“A novel that’s impossible to resist. It’s all here, and it all feels real.”—People
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.
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?