I don’t read many biographies, but I am utterly compelled by biographical fiction. The main characters of these novels are based on real people, but the authors aren’t stodgy about getting the facts straight. Instead they are more concerned with telling a scintillating story about fascinating characters.
Paula McLain’s new novel The Paris Wife fits this genre to a T. Based on Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson, it is set in Paris in the 1920s, which Hemingway wrote about so wonderfully in A Moveable Feast. However, you don’t need to be a Hemingway fan to be captivated by this book. Told from Hadley’s point of view, it explores the rise of Hemingway’s literary career at the expense of the couple’s marriage. The book resonates with a kind of knowing intimacy that can be hard to find in most of the “just the facts, ma’am” biographies.
If you’re waiting for your hold on The Paris Wife to come in or you’ve read it and loved it, you may be looking for something similar. Loving Frank and American Wife are two of my favorites novels that also explore the intimate lives of the wives of famous men.
In Loving Frank, Nancy Horan recreates the tumultuous love affair of Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright. Mamah comes alive on the pages as a strong, intellectual feminist who struggles against society’s narrow expectations for women. Mamah and Frank were both married with children when they fell in love. Neither spouse would grant a divorce, so Frank and Mamah scandalously abandoned their children and eloped to Europe in 1909. Criticized as immoral, Mamah paid a very heavy price for their affair. Although I was familiar with Wright’s architecture, this is a story I would never have known about if it weren’t for Horan’s gripping novel.
I was reluctant to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. Why would I ever in a million years want to read a book—fiction or non-fiction—about Laura Bush? But once I picked up this thinly veiled account of Laura’s life, I simply couldn’t put it down. The story of Alice and Charlie Blackwell’s marriage and their unlikely path to the White House is an absolute page turner. Sittenfeld takes many liberties with the facts and she speculates enormously about the couple’s inner lives and motivations. Yet Alice and Charlie emerge as surprisingly sympathetic people. Alice was such an intriguing, complex character, I was almost tempted to read a real biography of Laura Bush. Almost.