Barbara's picture

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

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.

Barbara's picture

Author On the Bookcase: Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know

Author On the Bookcase
Debra Ollivier

Debra OllivierI'm so thrilled to welcome Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind, to On the Bookcase. Debra writes that French women don’t give a damn. They don’t expect men to understand them. They don’t care about being liked or being like everyone else. They accept the passage of time; celebrate the immediacy of pleasure; embrace ambiguity and imperfection; and prefer having a life to making a living. American women might learn the basics of the liberating alternatives from the land that knows how to love. 

Bon Jour! Comment ca va? Debra, tell us about how studying French women led to a increase awareness of your our (American) culture. 

I wrote What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind partly out of frustration with the oo-la-la clichés recycled about French women. I lived in France for over ten years and all of the French women I know defy the cultural cream puffs thrown our way about their fashion, their infuriating lack of body fat, their lipstick, lingerie and high heels.  If French women seem so alluring and knowing, it has little to do with their surface glam and everything to do with their mindsets --  provocative things that are hardwired into them by French culture. I wanted to write a book that explored these things. Little did I know that in writing my book, I'd view my own culture through a different prism  and debunk a few enduring myths along the way.

For starters, contrary to what one might imagine I’m not a Francophile, though as a girl I was intrigued by French women and their “otherness” – or their “je ne sais quoi.” Like many American girls I vacillated between the desire to be cheerfully “popular” (a word and concept, by the way, that does not exist in the French lexicon) and the desire to be different -- in other words, to be myself. At the time French women seemed like icons of freedom precisely because their identity seemed all about being different. Their sophistication seemed wrapped up in the way they diverged from the aggressively sunny imperatives of “happy” and “perfection” that dominated my American girlhood. They were certainly a sensual and eclectic counterpart to the cookie-cutter beauty standard advocated around me. More importantly, they did indeed seem to have an elusive knowingness about them, and an ability to experience pleasure and enjoy men in ways that contradicted the zeitgeist of my own culture.

Decades later, the countless French women from all walks-of-life who I interviewed for the book described how these attributes play out in the realm of love, sex, dating (another word/concept that doesn’t exist in French), feminism (including why there's more complicity with men than commiseration about them), flirtation, marriage, parenting, adultery (it's not what you think!), aging, the perils of perfection and Happily Ever After, the dangers of dos-and-don’ts,  and art de vivre.

One interesting insight was the extent to which these attributes are fused into French women when they’re girls. For example, unlike American girls, French girls don’t grow up picking petals and pondering love with ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’ Rather, when they pick petals and ponder love, they intone: ‘He loves me a little, a lot, passionately, madly, not at all.’ Far more than an innocent schoolgirl refrain, this potent metaphor perfectly describes the different ways we look at love: While we grow up thinking in black and white, French women grow up inscrutably gray. While we grow up stuck in the absolutes of total love or utter rejection, the French girl grows up looking at love in nuances and as a range of possibilities. While we long for happy endings, they’re comfortable with emotional subtleties and ambiguity.

What French Women KnowSimilarly, one pressure that bears down on American girls is the pressure not only to be liked, but to be like everyone else. The wicked stress of that effort insinuates itself into the young heart and soul with a vengeance, and insecurities go from being hard little buds of confusion to overripe, tyrannical fruits that hang on the vine as we age. The cultural norms wired into the French brain at an early age, however, are almost exactly the opposite. If you don’t fit a standard mold, you’re alluring. If you look like everyone else, there’s something not right about you.  Sameness is suspect, "imperfections" are exalted and, as I mentioned, “popularity” – the word, the concept – never enters the French girl’s consciousness. No wonder many French women are so self-possessed they often don’t seem to give a damn what we think of them. (News flash: they don’t.)

Fast-forward: I’ve been fascinated by questions and discussions from readers about “What French Women Know.” Some of them are complex; others are deceptively simple. I’ll never forget one woman who asked how she could “be more French.” I told her that the point of the book is not to “be” French, nor is it, coming full circle, about emulating the surface glam we so often associate with French women. The point, if it can be distilled it to its essence, might be found in what was said by Michelle Fitoussi, the executive editor of French Elle. When I asked Fitoussi what she thought was the singular most defining thing about French women, she pondered a moment, then said: “French women have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.”
What a fitting counterpart, I thought (particularly since we Anglo-Saxons often have a keen sense of the brevity of pleasure and the immediacy of the future).

We will never “be” French – nor should we be -- but it wouldn’t hurt to live with Fitoussi’s mantra in our heads. It certainly might change the way we experience love and sex, not to mention other matters of the heart and mind.

Merci, Debra! Thanks so much for your ideas and giving us some topics for reading group discussion -- happy endings vs with "emotional subtleties and ambiguity," sameness vs otherness,  French culture vs American culture.

Praise for What French Women Know

"[Ollivier is] ideally suited to contrast and compare the two cultures that seem to fascinate--and irritate--each other." --Los Angeles Times

"A Gallic prescription for living a life that is richer, more sensual, messier, and a lot more fun" -- Boston Globe

Debra Ollivier lived in France for ten years, during which time she married her French husband and had two children. She was a frequent contributor to Salon and La Monde, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, Playboy, The Guardian, and Les Inrockuptibles. Also the author of Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, Ollivier lives with her family in Los Angeles and Paris.

Find more about Debra on her website.

Barbara's picture

Reading Group Choices Gift Books e-newsletter

Gifts for your family and friends! And, pick some up for yourself.

Reading Group Choices Gift Book E-newsletter 

Barbara's picture

Mailbox Monday

                   Mail Box Monday

Mailbox Monday was created by Marcia of The Printed Page and is being hosted by Julie of Knitting and Sundries for the month of November. 

Did you get any books by mail last week? Or, did you picked some up at the book store and/or librarary? Let us know. 

Publishers send books that could be reading group-appropriate. So, here are the books that flew into my mailbox.

Read This Next: 500 of the Best Books You'll Ever Read by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark (Harper)

Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord (Harper Perennial)

The Gentleman Poet by Kathryn Johnson (Avon A)

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor (January 2011, Hyperion)

The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins (sent to me by Esme from Chocolate and Croissants)

Barbara's picture

2010 National Book Awards Winners


The 2010 National Book Awards were announced today.

Here are the winners. Congratulations to all!

Young People's Literature
Kathryn Erskine
Terrance Hayes

Patti Smith
Just Kids

Jaimy Gordon
Lord of Misrule

Have you and will you read of one of the NBA awards?

Barbara's picture

Jane Eyre Movie Trailer

This is a must-see! 



The movie poster is great. And, Focus Features just revealed the official movie trailer.

It looks awesome!

Here is some of the cast -- Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.

Releases in March 11, 2011.

Barbara's picture

Is a Book or a Purse?

High Fashion Reading Group Pick. Is it a purse or a book?

Kate Spade has showcased three books in a clutch -- The Great Gatsy by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Great Expectations by
Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Fashion She Says includes a fashion photography display of The Great Gatsby.

How cool is that?

Barbara's picture

Contest to Win Video Interview with Yann Martel

Enter to win a contest for an video interview with Yann Martel, author of Beatrice and Virgil and Life of Pi.

Beatrice and VirgilOne reading group will chat with him on December 3rd at 5pm Pacific time, to discuss his latest novel Beatrice and Virgil, which USA Today has hailed as “dark and divine…a masterpiece.”

Life of PiIf you and your club are interested, have a computer with a video camera and the capability to use Skype, please e-mail Random House at with your name, location, and number of group members, and we’ll randomly select one lucky club.

Good Luck!

Barbara's picture

Poetry Reading Group Program

The Poetry Book Society of the U.K. has just launched a new reading group program based on the shortlist for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize for Poetry. They are hoping to persuade fiction reading groups to try poetry, using the work of the poets shortlisted for the Prize.

Reading groups can download three poems from each book, together with reading group notes on the poems, a biography and photo of each poet from The Poetry Book Society website. The website will also offer readers the opportunity to vote for their favourite poet online and to take part in discussion of the shortlist. The result of the reading groups’ vote will be announced on January 24, 2011.

The poets might not be familar to you but give it a try. Maybe pick one from the list and one American poet for National Poetry Month in April.

There are many ways to start the reading group discussion. Is there a difference between British poetry as oppose to American poetry? Is it the different cultures? Don't be afraid of poetry.

Barbara's picture

Author On the Bookcase: Jillian Cantor, author of The Transformation of Things

Author on the Bookcase
Jillian Cantor

Jill CantorI'm excited to welcome Jill Cantor, author of The Transformation of Things, to On the Bookcase. Jillian has crafted a truly fantastic novel about a complicated life made even more complicated. Jennifer Levenworth's husband, a judge, is indicted on bribery charges and her "friends" aren't that supportive. Then the dreams begin. When Jennifer sleeps, she swears she can see—and hear—her friends' and family's most private moments though her dreams. Jennifer realizes she is actually learning the truth about their lives, which is also leading her to question everything she thought she knew about herself.

Jillian writes the story of a woman who, in glimpsing the intimate lives of her loved ones, is able to illuminate the half-truths in her own and transform her life.

Jillian asks her characters and her readers, "[Is the] grass truly greener somewhere else? Are we ever really, truly 100% happy with where we are in life and the choices we make? 

What is your answer to your own question, Jillian?

People always ask me if I base my characters on myself or my own life. My short answer is no, because I write fiction, and my characters are not autobiographical. But I guess the longer answer is that even though my characters are fiction, they are in some ways rooted in my own life and my own experiences.

When I first started writing The Transformation of Things, I had two very young children who I stayed home with. Though I’d quit my job as a writing professor after my oldest was born, I was still teaching community college classes, part-time online. I struggled to fit some fiction writing in, in between nursing the baby, chasing after a toddler, watching endless episodes of The Wiggles, and grading some pretty dreadful freshman English papers. I wrote at night after the kids went to bed, or in the few short minutes I got in the afternoon if both kids happened to be simultaneously napping, or on weekend mornings when my husband was home. Like most other new moms, I was exhausted. All the time. It was often a struggle to think hard enough to get coherent words on the page.

I began the book with the idea for a woman whose husband has been indicted and is then ostracized by her friends. This idea came to me after a conversation with a friend of my own, who told me that she’d recently met the wife of a politician who’d been kicked out of office for doing something illegal. Her comment was that the woman was very nice, but she imagined it must be hard for other people to get past what her husband had done. And Jen sprung from there. I imagined what it would be like to feel ostracized from your friends and family, and I also imagined how this situation might affect a marriage – how it might make it worse, and also, better.

The Transformation of ThingsIn a way, it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine that isolation. Though Jen and I are really nothing alike, and my husband (or our relationship) is nothing at all like Will, as a stay-at-home mom with a baby and a three-year-old, I did often feel a bit isolated. I spent most of my time at home with minimal adult conversation. As much as I really truly loved being able to have that crucial time with my kids, sometimes I thought about the other people in my life and wondered what things were really like for them: my sister (still single), or my best friend (who’d just gotten married and hadn’t had kids yet), or another friend (whose babies were similar ages to mine but had chosen to put her kids in daycare and had gone right back to work instead of staying home). Was the grass truly greener somewhere else? Are we ever really, truly 100% happy with where we are in life and the choices we make? 

Thus, the inspiration for the women characters in The Transformation of Things, none of whom are me, or my friends, but all of whom have pieces of what I was thinking and feeling at that point in my life. There is the main character, Jen, who is struggling with isolation, not only from her friends, but also from herself and her marriage. There’s her sister, Kelly, who Jen thinks is the perfect stay-at-home mom and wife and a photographer -- only, maybe she’s not really all that perfect. There’s her friend, Kat, a woman who has all but abandoned her children for her career, and her friend, Lisa, who has all but abandoned her career for her children. Are any of them really, truly happy?

And then, maybe because I couldn’t do so in my own life but sometimes wished I could, I gave Jen the ability to be able to glimpse beneath the surface of the lives around her, to see that what’s on the outside of a life isn’t always what’s on the inside of a life. It became an interesting journey for Jen. And for me.

Eventually, my kids got a little bit older, I finished the book, and I came to realize that the grass really isn’t greener; sometimes it only appears that way from a distance. Maybe I didn’t get to glimpse beneath the surface of my friends’ lives like Jen did, but in writing about it, in a way, I almost felt like I did.

The Transformation of Things is out today, and to celebrate, Jillian is holding a contest over at her blog.

Thanks, Jillian, for chatting with us and writing a story that brings up a topic that, I think, everyone ponders at least once in their life.

Reading Group Alert! Betrayal, secrets, marital upheaval, friendship, personal discovery, love -- great discussion topics!  

Praise for The Transformation of Things

A provocative novel that raises fascinating questions about marriage and how to find our way back when love falters. Thoroughly original, highly engaging, and wonderfully tender.”
Laura Fitzgerald, author of Veil of Roses

Jillian Cantor's first novel, The September Sisters, was called "memorable" and "startlingly real" by Publishers Weekly and was nominated as a YALSA Best Book For Young Adults. Her second young adult novel, The Life of Glass, was released in February 2010. Jillian lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.

Check out Jillian's website, as well.

Syndicate content