She was shy, old-fashioned, a little dowdy. She’d had a traumatic youth, and no particular passion or work other than playing the piano. And she was just the first of four wives for writer Ernest Hemingway who, when Hadley Richardson met him, was a struggling Chicago journalist.
Now, though, Hadley is the quiet-spoken, long-suffering protagonist in the 2011 historical fiction novel “The Paris Wife” — chosen by the Pierce County library system as the book for this year’s Pierce County Reads program. The program includes a swag of April events themed around 1920s Paris and a May visit by author Paula McClain of Cleveland.
“The Paris Wife” makes a great choice for a countywide reading program, lending itself as it does to all sorts of activities from Hemingway films to art deco jewelry-making to antique and fashion shows. It’s also, as library marketing director Mary Getchell points out, a best-seller by a living author that has wide appeal and plenty of discussion topics and themes.
McClain’s ode to Hemingway’s retiring first wife hasn’t had all-glowing critical reviews, though. The book that went on to be a New York Times best-seller was condemned by the paper’s own critic as drawing a dull character with cliched dialogue in the midst of an unabashed work of “literary tourism” that flatters the reader and allows them to rub shoulders with the glamorous literary set of 1920s Paris: Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce.
For McClain, the book’s bigger than that. Inspired by Hadley’s own letters and biographies, she sees it as a way to explore deeper themes of female identity, marriage and divorce — issues that everyone can relate to.
Over the phone, McClain talked about what inspired “The Paris Wife” and the themes it passes on to readers.
Q: What got you going on Hadley Richardson in the first place?
A: Hadley was a big surprise. I hadn’t even heard her name until late in 2008, when I was casting around for a big idea for my next novel. … I was reading Hemingway’s (Paris memoir) “A Moveable Feast” just at random, and I got curious. Who was Hadley Richardson? How did they meet? According to Hemingway, she makes a mean salad, she says warm, supportive things, and then along comes Pauline Pfeiffer and breaks them up. That’s all in one-and-a-half pages dripping with regret. So I went to the library and read Hadley’s biographies and fell in love, especially through the excerpts of her letters.
Then I learned there was a whole cache of the love letters she wrote in that 11-month period when she was living in St. Louis and he was in Chicago — two or three a day about how they got to know each other and fell in love. I got to be a fly on the wall, got to know what was pushing them.
Q: How long did all the research take?
A: The whole thing took a couple of years, but then I whipped off the first draft in just seven months — I was in love (with the subject), I quit my job and wrote all day in a little Starbucks in Cleveland, then ran for the bus to pick up my kids from school.
Q: Did you do much research in Paris or Pamplona, where most of the action is set?
A: You know, until the book was done and sold, I’d never been to either France or Spain. I read a lot about Paris, and I would go on Google Earth to find out the street turnings and locations near their apartment. I was dead broke.
Q: Do you think Hadley Richardson was misunderstood?
A: Yes. She’s mostly misunderstood by Hemingway’s biographers as this ditzy starter-wife — you know, what kind of idiot would lose all his manuscripts? (Richardson left them on a train early in Hemingway’s career.) But Hadley’s biographers are loving. It’s women who see what there is to see in Hadley: a generosity of spirit, a great deal of compassion. She also has tricky bits, like why does she collude in her own destruction with Pauline? We like to say that would never happen in our marriage, but you never know until it happens.
Q: So “The Paris Wife” is bigger than just Hadley Richardson?
A: It’s become a book about the rise and fall of a marriage. I’ve had countless women come up and say the book helped them deal with their divorce or marriage. No one really knows what’s going on in a marriage, even their own.
Q: If Hadley was so conservative, why does she seem so permissive with the homosexuality and permissiveness in the Paris set at that time?
A: She had this wonderful tolerance for people that she could float next to them and not be threatened. She was rooted in herself. Hemingway was much more threatened and titillated. Like with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas — her point of view was that they loved each other. That’s what I found over and over in her correspondence.
Q: And was Hemingway also misunderstood?
A: Well, that macho, drunk side of him is very hard to like, and that’s what comes out most. But when you meet someone with a colossal ego, you don’t have to scratch very hard to find insecurity and self-doubt. That’s the man that Hadley knew.
Q: What will you talk about when you visit Tacoma in May?
A: I talk about my research and the surprises I had along the way, what I admire about Hadley, and I read snatches of her letters. But the reception I get — it’s rare that I do an event and don’t meet someone who had contact with Hemingway. … It’s the most gratifying part of what I do now, to go out into the larger world and be an ambassador for my book.
Pierce County Reads Events
Explore the world of this year’s Pierce County Reads book, “The Paris Wife” – the world of 1920s Paris. Art deco jewelry workshops, Paris tourist guides, Hemingway discussions, book talks and author visits are just some of the events coming up at Pierce County libraries.
Here’s the complete list. Participants are asked to bring a nonperishable food donation to any event to support the Emergency Food Network.
April 3, 1 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Eatonville Community Center, 305 Center St. W., Eatonville.
April 6, 10 a.m.: Art Deco Jewelry crafting. Gig Harbor Library, 4424 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor. 253-548-3305
April 6, 2 p.m.: Travel to Paris with travel expert Sabine Manning. Milton/Edgewood Library, Surprise Lake Square, 900 Meridian E., Suite 29, Milton. 253-548-3325
April 8, 7 p.m.: Golden Oldies Fashion Show by Goodwill. Parkland/Spanaway Library, 13718 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma. 253-548-3304
April 10, 6:30 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Steilacoom Library, 2950 Steilacoom Blvd., Steilacoom. 253-548-3313
April 10, 7 p.m.: Travel to Paris with travel expert Sabine Manning. Gig Harbor Library.
April 10, 7 p.m.: French cheese tasting. Puyallup Public Library, 324 S. Meridian Ave., Puyallup. 253-841-5454
April 11, 7 p.m.: War-era news reporting – how it’s changed since Hemingway’s day, by reporters from The News Tribune. University Place Library, 3609 Market Place W., Suite 100, University Place. 253-548-3307
April 13, 2 p.m.: Altered Books – creative book recycling with Charlene Phinney. Tillicum Library, 14916 Washington Ave. SW, Lakewood. 253-548-3314
April 15, 7 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. South Hill Library, 15420 Meridian E., Puyallup. 253-548-3303
April 16, 6:30 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Buckley Library, 123 S. River Ave., Buckley. 253-548-3310 or 360-829-0300. Also at DuPont Library, 1540 Wilmington Drive, DuPont. 253-548-3326
April 17, 6:30 p.m. Film discussion. Fife Library, 6622 20th St. E., Fife. 253-548-3323
April 17, 6:30 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. University Place library.
April 17, 7 p.m.: French cheese tasting. Summit, Library, 5107 112th St. E., Tacoma. 253-548-3321
April 18, 2:30 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Gig Harbor Library.
April 18, 5-8 p.m.: Art Deco jewelry crafting. Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. 253-272-4258
April 18, 7 p.m.: Writing and Publishing Books. Bonney Lake Library, 18501 90th St. E., Bonney Lake. 253-548-3308
April 18, 7 p.m.: Travel to Paris with travel expert Sabine Manning. Parkland/Spanaway Library.
April 20, 1 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Orting Library, 202 Washington Ave. S., Orting. 253-548-3312
April 20, 2 p.m.: Paris antique galleries of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Sumner Library, 1116 Fryar Ave., Sumner. 253-548-3306
April 20, 2 p.m.: Art deco jewelry crafting. Lakewood Library, 6300 Wildaire Road SW, Lakewood. 253-548-3302
April 24, 2 p.m.: Art Deco jewelry crafting. South Hill Library.
April 24, 6 p.m.: Film discussion. Sumner Library.
April 25, 6:30 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Parkland/Spanaway library.
April 25, 7 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Bonney Lake Library.
April 25, 7 p.m.: Film discussion. Gig Harbor Library.
April 25, 7 p.m.: Travel to Paris with travel expert Sabine Manning. Key Center Library, 8905 KPN, Lakebay. 253-548-3309
April 28, 2 p.m.: Antiques identification by expert Mary Sudar. Sumner Library.
April 30, 6:30 p.m.: Travel to Paris with travel expert Sabine Manning. Lakewood Library.
May 2, 7 p.m.: Hemingway and Women discussion with author Ann Putnam. King’s Books, 218 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma. 253-272-8801
May 2, 7 p.m.: Writing and Publishing Books with local authors Karen Lovett and Dick Dixon. Parkland/Spanaway Library.
May 4, 10 a.m.: Make a handmade book with Mitzi Lindgren. Gig Harbor Library.
May 6, 3 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Graham Library, 9202 224th St. E., Graham. 253-548-3322
May 8, 7 p.m.: Writing and Publishing Books with local authors Karen Lovett and Dick Dixon. Puyallup Library.
May 9, 6:30 p.m.: Film discussion. Parkland/Spanaway Library.
May 11, 1-3 p.m. Parisian Anniversary Party. DuPont Library.
May 12, 3 p.m.: “The Paris Wife” book discussion. Summit Library.
May 16, 7 p.m.: Author appearance by award-winning cooking memoirist Kathleen Flinn. University Place library.
May 17, noon: Author appearance by best-selling biographer Gregg Olsen. Arts and Allied Health Building, Pierce College Puyallup, 1601 39th Ave. SE, Puyallup.
May 17, 7 p.m.: Author appearance and signing by Paula McLain, author of “The Paris Wife.” The McGavick Conference Center, Clover Park Technical College, 4500 Steilacoom Blvd. SW, Lakewood.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts