Setting her novel against the vibrant early twentieth century, McLain passionately constructs the colorful existence of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemmingway’s first wife, focusing on her early years and her time in Paris, where Ernest struggled to develop his skills as a writer. Hemmingway's life with Hadley soon becomes ineffably entwined
by shared passion and love, his desire to write consuming their time together.
Her mother’s illness weighs on her
as Hadley, only twenty-eight, arrives in Chicago to live on the second floor of her older sister’s house.
She settles into a carefree, spinsterish existence, not reckoning on Ernest, who beguiles her at a party, his eyes sparkling with fierce intensity. Hadley obviously touches some kind of nerve in Ernest; she, in turn, is cornered by the writer's seductive smile and easy laughter.
There’s the first kiss, the feel of Ernest radiating warmth and life - everything about him is out of the ordinary. As his letters come to her
- sometimes two or three a day “crushed and tangled and full of deliciousness" - the memories of the Great War continue to plague this complex, damaged man. Hadley is torn.
She wants to know whether she can trust him as she leaves the relative security of her family to travel with him to Paris.
From their first furnished apartment at the top of a dim, ramshackle stairwell with its ghastly smelling pissoir to the cobblestone streets of Fifth Arrondissement, teeming with coal peddlers and drunks who spill out of the bistros, Paris becomes Ernest’s smorgasbord. He walks the streets at night, recognizable everywhere, his long unruly hair and tennis shoes perpetuating the image of the quintessential Left Bank writer.
Only in this world of impoverished artists can Ernest become the bohemian, where bourgeois values are unacceptable and free-thinking, free-living lovers bend every convention while risking their liberation. Marriage, however, can be a "deadly terrain," and Paris is littered with the results of lovers’ bad decisions. Hadley takes to this life with fervor yet feels the weight of anxiety.
She moves through the blurred edges of maternal love, her dreams becoming plainer and more tied to her erratic husband’s needs.
In strong, declarative prose reminiscent of Hemingway’s own writings, McLain uses a utility of language, stripping her narrative bare. While the author favors a youthful and exuberant portrait of Hemmingway, she also writes of Hadley’s fervent passions and frustrations as she becomes the dutiful wife and mother,
initially in thrall to Ernest's talent but soon full of so much anger and hurt that she can barely stand to look at him.
Hadley endures much suffering for Ernest’s career, but she’s ultimately comforted by the satisfaction of knowing that he couldn’t do it without her. McLain portrays a strong, courageous women who fights for love even as Ernest challenges her, helping her see what it is that she can do with her own life. The painfully pure, simple years in Paris are where Ernest is his very best self, and where
Hadley gets the very best of him as she witnesses his colorful transformation from literary hero into creative genius.