Paula McLain was a critically acclaimed yet obscure writer eking out a living as an adjunct professor at John Carroll when she had the idea for “The Paris Wife,” a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, set in 1920s Paris.
The idea of writing “A Moveable Feast” from Hadley’s perspective struck her like a lightning bolt one day while driving. “I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her,” Hemingway writes in his memoir — yet his “Paris wife” takes up only a few scant pages.
“Hemingway’s rendering of Hadley is so tender and regretful, yet she is largely unknown,” McLain recently told an audience at the Cleveland Public Library. “I wanted her to step out of the shadows of literary history and tell her story.”
Why not re-imagine the story of the woman who knew Hemingway before he was famous? She knew the idea was marketable; her biggest fear was that someone else had already written it. After plumbing the downtown library’s stacks to make sure her idea was original, McLain dashed off an email to her agent. Something along the lines of: “It’s a novel about the rise and fall of a marriage — with lots of sex and bullfighting in between.”
A single word in her agent’s reply changed her life: Yes.
Today Paula McLain, once the best writer you’d never heard of, is a rising star with a best-selling novel. After “The Paris Wife” was purchased by Ballantine Books for north of $500,000 and released in February, it debuted at number nine on the New York Times best-seller list and has remained in the top 20. For months, McLain has crisscrossed the country giving readings to standing-room-only crowds — a far cry from her last tour, when she drove through a blizzard to read to three people in Pittsburgh.
“I learned while I was on tour that the book was on the best-seller list, and when I visited St. Louis, where Hadley grew up, her family was there,” McLain says. “Her nephew cried. He said he was so grateful she’d been honored in this way.”
Just a few years ago McLain, who lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband and three children, seemed destined for another date with literary heartbreak. She’d twice lost her publisher when her first novel (“A Ticket to Ride”) and memoir (“Like Family”) won critical but not commercial success.
“I sent my agent a hundred pages of another novel I’d started, and she told me, ‘Please God, tell me you’re not going to write this book — I can’t sell another quiet, lyrical, coming-of-age story,'” she recalls. “At the time, the literary marketplace was so volatile and the publishing world was caving in. This had to be my breakout novel.”
McLain, who was determined to write a book with literary merit and commercial appeal, set off on a mission to capture Hadley’s story. She had to be faithful to history, yet also weave in elements of literary fiction. So each day from nine until two, she poured over stacks of research at the Cedar-Fairmount Starbucks in Cleveland Heights. “For the cost of a tall dark coffee, I got a desk. I thought it was a pretty good deal,” she says.
Along the way she fell in love with Hadley Richardson. Hemingway was in his early 20s when he proposed to her — in a letter, no less — after meeting her at a party. The idealistic newlyweds left behind their disapproving families to set sail for Paris. Once there, Hemingway quickly ascended the ranks of Paris literati, rubbing shoulders and downing absinthe with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hadley stood by his side until a flashier woman got in the way.
Consumed by lust for success, Hemingway betrayed his friends and cheated on Hadley. He married three more times before committing suicide at age 62. “When ambition started eating him alive, that’s when he became a different kind of man,” says McLain.
Yet readers shouldn’t expect Hadley to be a pre-feminist icon or Hemingway to be a cut-and-dry chauvinist. While “The Paris Wife” offers a cutting critique of modernists such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Pound — showing how their rebellion against Victorian values was undercut by their sexism — it tenderly portrays Hemingway as psychologically wounded by his experiences as a World War I ambulance driver.
When Hadley finds out that her husband is cheating on her, she at first willingly participates in his adulterous schemes. She allows his mistress and soon-to-be second wife, Vogue editor Pauline Pfeiffer, to join them on vacation to Spain. Ultimately, though, she comes to her senses and divorces Hemingway.
Despite the book’s commercial success, reviews have been mixed. New York Times critic Janet Maslin called Hadley a “stodgy bore,” while L.A. Times writer Susan Salter Reynolds said that the book offered a “Hallmark version” of Hemingway’s Paris years.
Fortunately for McLain, other reviews have been positive. She has also been thrilled by the enthusiastic response from her readers. “It’s very hard to have a literary book make a dent on the bestseller list, and that’s heartening for all of us,” she says.
Now that the book tour is over, McLain says she’s glad to be back home in Cleveland Heights, an arts-friendly community overflowing with talent. “We have an exceptional number of writers here,” she says, citing Dan Chaon, Thrity Umrigar and Sarah Willis.
McLain is an active supporter of other Cleveland writers. When she’s not working on her own projects, she often swaps critiques with her East Side Writers’ Group. Last year, she taught a fiction workshop at the Lit, a nonprofit literature group.
“It’s so important when successful writers mentor emerging talent,” says Judith Mansou, Director of the Lit. “Students in Paula’s class loved her. In fact, three students had their work published in literary journals as a result of the class.”
With writers like McLain making their home here, Cleveland’s literary community will continue to grow, says Mansour. “Writers here are supportive, and that helps to feed other writing talent in the region.”
Published in Fresh Water Cleveland, 5/26/11 issue