The place was Bohemian Paris in the 1920s, the electrified home of the Lost Generation of expatriate American writers. That extraordinary window of time in the world's cultural capital was called "années folles" by the French the crazy years. Anything seemed possible.
Onto the scene stormed the brash, ambitious young Ernest Hemingway, boasting of his plans of greatness, lingering in cafes and bistros into the nights with the legendary likes of John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller and Ezra Pound.
Serving as their "den mother" was art collector and experimental writer Gertrude Stein, who famously hosted them at her salon on the rue de Fleurus, along with artists Manet, Matisse, Cezanne and Picasso.
With Hemingway was his new wife, the red-haired Hadley Richardson, a timid, old-fashioned young woman from St. Louis. She was 28, he was 20. It was hard to imagine a more unlikely couple in such a glamorous setting.
As Hemingway's literary star rose, though, he and Hadley became the golden couple in that free-spirited, hard-drinking city, thanks to his charisma. He led, she followed, linking her own identity to his overpowering one. They nicknamed each other "Tatie." They would have one child, John, nicknamed "Bumby," who would become the father of Joan, Margaux and Mariel Hemingway.
Their marriage ended when a humiliated Hadley discovered in 1925 that her husband was having an affair with her "good friend" Pauline Pfeiffer, who was in the habit of traveling with the Hemingways throughout Europe. Five months after their divorce became final in 1927, Hemingway married Pauline, and would go on to marry twice more.
In "The Paris Wife," Paula McLain transports readers to a time that will never come again, telling the passionate and poignant love story between Ernest and Hadley through Hadley's eyes.
The historical novel is The Bee Book Club's choice for February. McLain is also the author of a memoir, "Like Family," about growing up in foster homes in the Fresno area, as well as the novel "A Ticket to Ride" and two poetry collections.
"When they first moved to Paris, there was a beautiful purity about Hemingway's ambition and work ethic," McLain said by phone from her Cleveland home. "But then he met all these huge egos who whispered into his ear, 'You're a a genius, and you're going to change everything.' They also told him that Hadley moved too slowly for him. And she did, which she herself admitted.
"He began to believe the hype about himself and eventually abandoned everyone who had helped him along the way, and then threw them under the bus" in his books.
McLain was teaching English at a Jesuit school and looking for a subject for her second novel when she happened to read Hemingway's memoir "A Moveable Feast," published in 1964, three years after his suicide.
"It turned out that Hadley found me, I didn't find her," McLain said.
While traveling through France with his fourth wife, Mary, in the 1950s, Hemingway got a call from a friend at the Ritz in Paris, saying two steamer trunks full of his belongings had been discovered in the hotel's basement.
"In it were sketches he'd written in Paris as a young man and forgotten about," McLain said. "That's how he came to refamiliarize himself with his literary ascendancy. But more than that, it was his way of reconnecting with Hadley. I love that he was looking back at the end of his life and reliving his time with her and that version of himself he'd given up along the way."
Reading between the lines, the memoir "suggests that he and the love of his life were teetering on the edge of a precipice," McLain said. "At the end of it, he tells about the coming of Pauline. And then he says about Hadley, 'I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her.'
"The book is tinged with regret, and it nearly broke my heart," McLain said. "That's when I saw the great love story in it, so I followed my nose and went looking for it. What interested me was the notion of a small-town girl as a fish out of water, who had an outsider's perspective. She was 'that girl in the corner' at Gertrude Stein's salon who gets to tell us what's happening in 1920s Paris."
McLain quit her teaching job to devote all her time to researching "The Paris Wife," which included reading all of the Nobel Prize winner's works and biographies, and poring over the "delicious correspondence" between Hadley and Hemingway.
"I wrote the book mostly in a Starbucks near my house," McLain recalled. "I was blissfully ignorant of how much work was ahead. I was like, 'Wheee, this is an awesome story!' Thank goodness I was excited, because that carried me along. Their love story was the momentum and the blood of it."
As for capturing Hadley's voice in order to make the character sound authentic, McLain "glommed on to her through the distinct wording she used and her little turns of phrases. In one letter, she was telling Ernest how much she likes how he is giving her all of his thoughts, and then she writes, 'And I hear it all out of your great-big square head, don't I, dear?' "
McLain eventually traveled to Paris for her "Stalking Ernest Hemingway Tour," she said with a laugh. "I stood in front of (his and Hadley's) first apartment, went around the corner to the studio where he worked, took his walk through Luxembourg Gardens and went to Gertrude Stein's salon."
Word of mouth
"The Paris Wife" shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list soon after its release in 2011, pushed by word of mouth among reading groups nationwide and by an all-out marketing campaign from the publisher, Ballantine.
"We had to compete for the book at auction, and I simply had to have it," said Susanna Porter, McLain's editor at Ballantine. "When we won the bidding, I was excited, but mostly hugely relieved. I just didn't know how I'd be able to handle not publishing this novel, that's how good I thought it was.
"But even when you have a great book, you still have to get the ball rolling (publicity-wise) before word-of-mouth starts to work. There were a lot of other books out there competing for the same readers."
"I got the brass ring, so now I can just write," McLain said. "I had published books before, but oh, my goodness. In my experience, when you publish a book nothing happens and no one reads it. Then to walk aboard airplanes and see people reading 'The Paris Wife.' I have to stop myself from saying, 'Hey, that's my book! Let's talk!' "
McLain is at work on another historical novel, reimagining the life of Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist. "I love it that it's not a 'woman behind the man' story," she said.
What does she hear about from fans during "Paris Wife" book tours?
"Two kinds of women come up to me," she said. "One kind pinches my elbow and says, 'I have a bone to pick with you about Hemingway. He was a dirty, rotten so-and-so.' The other kind wants to shake Hadley by the shoulders and say, 'Why are you letting him get away with that?' Somehow, it's become my job to defend Hemingway to smart women everywhere."
In the book, the Hemingways come across not so much as star-crossed lovers but as opposites who were attracted.
"Under the surface, he roiled with self-doubt and she grounded him. In turn, he sort of gave her permission to live larger," McLain said. "He was an extrovert, she was an introvert. She was (an accomplished pianist) but was terrified of performing, while he was electric in public."
Their similarities "had a deeper fault line, though," McLain pointed out. Both had overbearing mothers who wanted to crush their spirits, and both of their fathers committed suicide.
"They both needed to push away from their big families and reinvent themselves, which is why they were keen on going very far away, to Paris," McLain said.
In the end, Hemingway's infidelity ruined everything, and it wouldn't be the only time.
"He was in love with falling in love, and addicted to the energy of newness," McLain explained. "His journal entries show he was morose and guilt-ridden over leaving Hadley, but he couldn't help himself. He ruined himself in love over and over again, trying to find that one person who could fix him. The irony and tragedy were that he had what he needed in Hadley she was his muse but gave her up."
Hadley's post-Ernest life had a happy ending. In 1933, she wed journalist-poet Paul Mowrer, a union that lasted 35 years.
"She reportedly was very happy," McLain said. "Still, she loved Hemingway till the end of her life."
Is there a universal lesson to be learned from "The Paris Wife"?
McLain was silent for a moment, then said quietly, "We lose a lot when we love, and we don't always get to have the people we love the most."
Paula McLain will appear for The Bee Book Club for her historical novel "The Paris Wife" at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Doors will open at 5:15 p.m.
McLain's presentation is a free event, but tickets are required. To get them, go to www.beebuzzpoints.com.
Barnes & Noble will be there to sell the trade paperback edition of "The Paris Wife" for 30 percent off the retail price (Ballantine, $15, 352 pages).
Through Thursday, these stores will offer a 30 percent discount on the title: Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Face in a Book in Eldorado Hills, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Carol's Books, Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.