Author Spotlight: Paula McLain

About the Author:

Paula McLain’s novels came into my life thanks to a coworker (THANKS JAN!), and once I read the first book, I knew I’d love her others. McLain has a knack for writing historical fiction novels with strong, feisty female characters. She unearths their stories and shows their groundbreaking thoughts and actions throughout the pages of her books. Her writing is transportive, taking the reader back into the time period and setting, and making them feel like they are watching a movie in each scene.

I cannot say how many times I have since passed on McLain’s name as a recommendation of my own, and I am eagerly anticipating her future novels.

Novels

The Paris Wife
Published: February 2011, Ballantine Books

Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: emotional and physical abuse, adultery, and toxic relationships.

The Paris Wife had me hooked within minutes as McLain describes the preface of the novel- the love story and downfall of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, from the point of view of his wife Hadley.

img_8046Elizabeth “Hadley” Richardson, age 28, flees to Chicago for a reprieve from grief over her mother’s death and sullen family life. Determined to shed her “spinster aunt” image and find something to live for, she attends a party and meets young Ernest Hemingway, age 21. Right away, his passion for life and writing deeply attracts Hadley, and they soon form a friendship, writing letters back and forth almost daily after she returns home to St. Louis. After some time, Ernest finally proposes, and though there were nerves on both accounts, they marry and follow Ernest’s dreams of becoming a famous writer, moving to Paris in 1921.

However, Paris isn’t what they expected. The romanticized fantasy of fast success quickly gives way to reality of a struggling artist’s lifestyle. Hadley makes the best of the situation, trying to give Ernest the space he needs to write in the their tiny, overpriced apartments while still giving him the love, encouragement, and support he needs to push through his writing. As the couple meets new couples and artists alike, they begin to explore the modern Paris, and European, scenes. During a discussion on marriage, one friend pointed out to Hadley:

“You suffer for his career. What do you get in the end?”
and her reply:
“The satisfaction of knowing he couldn’t do it without me.”

Unfortunately, Hadley starts to notice changes in her relationship with Ernest that she can’t ignore. He’s easily frustrated with her, he spends hours and sometimes longer writing away from her, and when she finds out she’s pregnant, he thinks it a ploy to distract him from his work. Hadley weathers these storms, but when she finally notices that Ernest has his eye on another woman, she can’t deny that her marriage is in danger.

McLain does an excellent job on relaying the story as if you were in the room, a part of the whole scene. The detail in her narration and the word choice is so pleasing (in my opinion), and it makes for a gripping but easy read. I actually flagged many lines to quote in example to how precise her character depth is. Simply a lovely, honest read.

Circling the Sun
Published: July 2015, Ballantine Books

Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: emotional and physical abuse, adultery, and toxic relationships.

“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”

img_6312In 350 pages, each one full of a romantic views of life in 1920’s British East Africa, we witness the life of Beryl Markham (née Clutterbuck), starting as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya.

Her father runs a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife.

Following her best friend Kibii’s example, who learned from his tribe how to be a warrior, Beryl proves she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt. He must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.

She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merger leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.

While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. I’m also amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s in such a wild landscape. With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend Circling the Sun to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. 

Love and Ruin
Published: May 2018, Ballantine Books

Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: emotional and physical abuse, adultery, and toxic relationships.

Before I jump into the novel, I have to say a quick word about The Paris Wife– I loved Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, and it broke my heart to read McLain’s version of the dissolution of their marriage, and to hear how Hemingway treated his wife. Going into Love and Ruin, I already had some stored up resentment towards Hemingway. He had a dark side- an egotistical, demanding, impulsive one. Yet he charmed people with a magnetic force into his orbit, easily attracting Hadley. Sadly, he was equally talented a pushing people out, and in this case, pulling other women in.

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Martha “Marty” Gellhorn, a young journalistic writer/reporter, was with her mother on a brief vacation to Key West in between assignments when she walked into the same pub as Hemingway. She’d traveled all over the world as a foreign correspondent, as well as covered the effect of the Great Depression in the US, writing and trying to advance her career. Privately, her paramours were but whirlwind romances, but when she met Ernest, her idol, things seemed different. Martha knew he was married, but he was so charming, so charismatic… she knew that they were falling for each other, and that they were doomed from the start.

When Ernest headed to Spain and told her to meet him there, she knew she had to follow him. Trying to keep their attraction secret, she found a professional reason to travel to Spain, as a correspondent for Collier’s Weekly covering the Spanish Civil War. However, being in proximity to him in such dire times only seemed to bring them closer. Conflicted, they said painful goodbyes before she traveled on to report the rise of Hitler and the conflicts in Europe, while he returned to his second wife to work on a new novel.

Eventually, Ernest persuades her to come live with him. They settle in Cuba, and he divorces Paulline to marry Martha. Living in a tropical paradise, they each begin writing-  For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest, and A Stricken Field by Martha. Throughout their writing processes, there’s competitive tension that strains their marriage. Once published, Hemingway’s novel booms, and Martha’s novel is snubbed, considered having too much influence by her husband. She is left feeling like a footnote in his life, assuming that she may never stop being compared to him. Determined not to stay in his shadow and proving her talent, she leaves again for Europe, joining the men in the trenches during WWII. Reporting where women weren’t allowed was both dangerous and thrilling for Martha, and the love of her career volleyed with her love for her husband. Eventually, she had to choose- which one did she love more?

Yet again, McClain has blown me away with her strong female lead and her beautiful, lyrical writing. She has also made me disdain Hemingway and adore his third wife. Gellhorn was an impressive woman- strong, smart, adventurous, brave. I understand how she didn’t want to be known as just Hemingway’s third wife, because she was so much more- a world traveler, a fearless reporter, a compassionate woman. Despite her love and admiration for him and his talent, she would not let Ernest manipulate and control her (despite his best efforts). Gellhorn would not let a man dull her shine. McClain’s account of their dramatic, roller-coaster relationship is absolutely worth the read.



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