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updated: 3/13/2012 9:29 AM

'The Paris Wife' introduces Big Read fans to a young Hemingway

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  • "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain introduces readers to a young Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. It is this year's Big Read selection at 10 suburban libraries. McLain will come to Willowbrook in May to discuss the work with her fans.

      "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain introduces readers to a young Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley. It is this year's Big Read selection at 10 suburban libraries. McLain will come to Willowbrook in May to discuss the work with her fans.
    Associated Press

  • Author Paula McLain, whose novel "The Paris Wife" was selected as this year's Big Read at 10 area libraries, will come to Willowbrook in May to discuss the work with her fans.

      Author Paula McLain, whose novel "The Paris Wife" was selected as this year's Big Read at 10 area libraries, will come to Willowbrook in May to discuss the work with her fans.

  • Video: Paula McLain discussion

 
 

Writing a historic novel is somewhat like connecting dots of history with lines to create a picture.

"That is a nice way of thinking about it," said national best-selling author Paula McLain.

From a coffee shop near her home in Cleveland, Ohio, McLain talked about her book "The Paris Wife," the current Big Read selection for 10 area libraries.

For the eighth year, the Lisle Library is joining forces with libraries in Clarendon Hills, Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Darien, LaGrange, LaGrange Park, Western Springs, Westmont and Woodridge to encourage patrons to read the same book. This year's selection gives readers opportunities to learn about the roaring 1920s, Paris, Spain, jazz and author Ernest Hemingway.

McLain began her writing career with two collections of poetry, an autobiographical book about her childhood in foster care and the novel "A Ticket to Ride."

The former high school English teacher said extensive research went into writing "The Paris Wife."

While searching for a possible book subject, McLain read "A Moveable Feast" in which Ernest Hemingway wrote of his first wife, Hadley, "I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her."

The straightforward sentence tickled McLain's curiosity and she began to research the period of time in the early 1920s when Hemingway met and married Hadley Richardson Hemingway, followed by the young couple's years in Paris and the birth of their son.

"I did not know anything about (Ernest's) personal life beyond the mythology of Hemingway," McLain said. "I think that helped a great deal because I had no agenda in him. So when I began to write the book, I could let Hadley show me the way without trying to exonerate him or take him down."

McLain did much of her research at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum with its extensive Hemingway collection. On the museum's website, jfklibrary.org, an audio of Patrick Hemingway, Ernest's second son, said his father's letters are chatty and full of vivid details.

McLain found the subject of her book "The Paris Wife" when she read hundreds of letters between Hadley and Ernest Hemingway. This was the history she built her novel around.

"My story begins when Hadley and Ernest meet in Chicago at a party for the first time," McLain said. "My job then began by projecting myself into all the places that no biographer could ever presume to know. For instance, what did they say to each other, or what did they think about this first meeting, which became the challenge and the pleasure of writing the book."

To write as fast as she could, McLain left her teaching job. With $600 in the bank and young children to care for, she could not travel to all the destinations captured in the novel.

"People ask me all the time if I lived in Paris for a summer while writing the book," McLain said. "I would have liked to have done so, but most of all I read everything I could about that time and searched out all kinds of wonderful details."

A large detail McLain found was that Hemingway's books are written by hand.

"I was able at the JFK library to look at handwritten early drafts of many books for an extraordinary experience, and his handwriting is not easy to read," said McLain.

She found that a breakfast of eggs and steak cost 60 cents on a Pullman train car from a letter to Hadley.

"As a young man, Ernest kept track of every cost and together they focus on how much things cost because he was trying to save to go to Paris," McLain said. "I think readers want to know those concrete details to help them sensually imagine what it would be like to be there."

Other details in the book, such as the valise Hadley carried on a train and the other notable characters such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, are all true and found in the letters McLain read.

"Hemingway was a complicated person, for sure," McLain said. "But what I liked about Hadley was that in knowing him, she was clear-eyed about his flaws. She didn't soften or romanticize them but found a way to love and admire him anyway. I think that testifies to her character, to her generosity of spirit, general warmth and depth of her love."

Because the story is told through Hadley's voice, she emerges as a heroine despite challenging situations that tax her core values.

A quote from the book in which Hadley defines her husband summarizes Hemingway:

"Hemingway was always out for himself whatever the cost," Hadley wrote.

"I think Hadley ultimately made the decision that she needed to make in order to feel OK the rest of her life," McLain said.

Readers will find information about the Big Read online at thebigread.org. All participating libraries have program guides listing all the programs associated with The Big Read, ranging from listening to jazz and baking French pastries to visiting with Coco Chanel and watching the movie "The Old Man and the Sea."

McLain will visit with Big Read participants at 7 p.m. May 3 at Ashton Place in Willowbrook. Advance registration online or at your local library is a must to assure your place.

The Lisle Library has a large display of 100 books related to the Big Read, "The Paris Wife" and Ernest Hemingway. The selection is to encourage readers to discover the wealth of information and pleasure found in books.

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