Author On the Bookcase: Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

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Author On the Bookcase
Paula McLain

Paula McLainI'm thrilled to welcome Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife, to On the Bookcase. Hemingway is one of my favorite writers and have read some biographies of him. Now we can experience him through the eyes of his first wife, Hadley, in Paula's new novel. Paula captures Hadley's voice and brings to life the remarkable period of time -- Paris in the twenties -- and the passionate affair and marriage of Ernest and Hadley. Hadley struggled with her roles as a woman -- wife, lover, friend, muse, mother -- and tries to find a place for herself in this world.

Paula tells us that writing The Paris Wife "was such an incredible voyage . . . I had slipped through a miraculous portal . . ." 

Welcome, Paula!

There’s a moment in A Moveable Feast, when Ernest Hemingway and his new wife, Hadley, have just moved to Paris, where he’s hoping to earn his stripes as a writer. It’s 1922. Winter has settled grimly in, and Hemingway, sitting in a café after a day’s writing, watches a cold rain falling and feels the grip of melancholy and emptiness. He orders a dozen portugaises and dry white wine and as he eats the oysters, “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture,” something happens. The emptiness he’s feeling is washed away, too. It occurs to him that he and Hadley could leave Paris for a holiday in the Swiss Alps, where there would be lovely snow instead of rain. He rushes home to tell Hadley of his plan and she agrees wholeheartedly. Within days they’re tucked into a cozy chalet in Chamby, Switzerland. They teach themselves to ski and, at night, lay tucked into the featherbed with their books and a fire roaring nearby, and everything is better than good. It saves them.


      Ernest and Hadley Hemingway
   Chamby, Switzerland, Winter 1922

Researching Hemingway and Hadley’s life together for The Paris Wife, it struck me that the overwhelming success of this trip to Chamby set a tone for their marriage. For the next five years, as Hemingway was becoming the writer we know now, arguably the most influential of his generation, he and Hadley lived in Paris and traveled with increasing relish—from the ice glaciers of the Austrian Vorarlberg to the hot cobblestones of Pamplona and everywhere in between: Milan, Rapallo, Lausanne, Antibes, Madrid, Valencia, San Sebastian. They had an endless appetite for a fresh view, exotic dish, unfamiliar wine—for life, really. And as I worked on The Paris Wife, tracing their journeys imaginatively, living with them in these amazing places, I was literally swept away.

The Paris WifeI wrote nearly all of the first draft tucked into a brown velveteen chair at Starbucks in Cleveland, where I live. Hardly a Parisian café—and yet it didn’t matter. Outside the fogged glass, it was October, then December, then February. Snow fell, melted, fell again—but I didn’t really feel it. I had slipped through a miraculous portal to San Sebastian and the blinding white sand beach of La Concha, or to the first riotous night of Fiesta in Pamplona, complete with chirping fifes and fireworks and riau-riau dancing.

When I finished the book, late in May, I almost couldn’t let it go. Living inside their story was such an incredible voyage—and because I’ve been very lucky indeed, it hasn’t ended. This past summer I traced the Hemingways’ route through France and Spain—Paris to San Sebastian to Pamplona, to Antibes. It was a life-changing trip and it began with a plate of perfect oysters, portugaises, and dry white wine at one of Hemingway’s favorite Parisian cafés, the Closerie des Lilas. They tasted of the sea, yes, and also of history and memory. Of sweeping love, and life lived to the fullest. They tasted of Hemingway’s Paris and my own extraordinary good fortune—and I savored every last drop.

Thanks so much, Paula, for letting us share your "journey" into the Hemingways' exciting life. The history, the real-life characters, the food, the wine, the marriage struggles, the period and time of Paris -- all are great topics for any reading group.

Here is Paula's recipe for oysters and some ideas for wine to go with the oysters. Perfect to serve for your discussion of The Paris Wife!

Preparing oysters on the half-shell at home is simple but takes some practice. At the market, select shells that are tightly closed, and just before you plan to use them. Store under damp paper towels with the largest side down, so the oysters can rest in their own juices.

When opening an oyster, hold it in one hand (larger side down) and place the tip of an oyster knife or sharp-pointed can opener into a gap in the hinge of the shell and pry shells apart. Once open, move a small knife under the oyster, separating the muscle from the shell. Be careful to retain as much of the oyster’s juices in the shell as possible.

Serve on a bed of crushed ice with wedges of lemon or a sauce of minced shallots and white wine vinegar. Allow for at least six oysters per person.

Sancerre is a crisp, dry white wine from the Loire Valley which pairs beautifully with the oysters. Another similar wine, such as Pouilly-Fuiseé, would also work, as would champagne.

Praise for The Paris Wife

"McLain offers a vivid addition to the complex-woman-behind-the-legendary-man genre, bringing Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, to life.... The heart of the story -- Ernest and Hadley's relationship -- gets an honest reckoning, most notably the waves of elation and despair that pull them apart." —Publishers Weekly

"The Paris Wife is mesmerizing. Hadley Hemingway’s voice, lean and lyrical, kept me in my seat, unable to take my eyes and ears away from these young lovers.  Paula McLain is a first-rate writer who creates a world you don’t want to leave. I loved this book."
 —Nancy Horan, New York Times bestselling author of Loving Frank

Paula McLain received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan and has been a resident at Yaddo. She is the author of two collections of poetry, a memoir called Like Family, and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride. Paula lives in Cleveland, OH with her family.

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