Book Clubs: Real Life Characters and Fiction

In my experience, most Book Clubs read primarily fiction. However, many of those same book clubs will often throw in a book or two that is nonfiction, particularly if it has received a lot of press, such as UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand. Through the years, my own book club has done the same and I often find nonfiction books to be among some of the most well-written (see my post Nonfiction Rocks). Lately, I feel there’s a growing trend in books that blur the lines between fact and fiction, novels that feature real life characters. Fiction inspired by fact.

In the last several weeks, I’ve read two novels that were exactly that, stories built around a protagonist who lived and plot lines inspired by the actual events of their lives. The first was THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain – a popular novel in book clubs recently. Screen Shot 2013-02-13 at 1.35.12 PMThe author focuses this novel on the first wife of Ernest Hemingway, Hadley Richardson. While Hemingway is certainly larger than life, McLain allows us to know the young man through the woman who loved and married him. Although she has letters and other accounts available in creating the character of Hadley, she gives her a personality that is both appealing and real to the reader. When the relationship fails (Hemingway marries 4 times), Hadley moves on, however, the author makes us believe that it was his first wife that he loved  most.

Screen Shot 2013-02-13 at 1.34.13 PMThe second book I just completed was LOVING FRANK by Nancy Horan (somehow I missed this book when it was published several years ago). This story chronicles the affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwich Cheney, both married with children in the early 1900s. Their story is told from the perspective of Mamah and is a fictionalization of their relationship. Although their affair was illicit and scandalous enough to be tabloid fare, much of the remainder of Horan’s portrait of Mamah is based on only a handful of letters and personal accounts. Still, although her true thoughts can never be known, Horan paints the portrait of a woman who is self-absorbed enough to leave her husband and children yet often filled with self-doubt and questioning the very choices that changed so many lives.

Both books feature men that are larger than life yet it is the women who dominate the stories and perhaps shape the men they eventually became. What is most interesting to me in reading both novels is to take their stories and imagine them set in modern times. Would Wright’s affair with Mamah be so scorned today? Certainly it would make Inside Edition and TMZ but only until the next scandal of the day. Men and women abandoning their marriages, even with children, happens every day (and not just with celebs). As for Hadley, would she have been able to weather Hemingway’s affair if she weren’t a product of a more conservative America? Both men went on to achieve great things but also were great eccentrics. What would they be like today? And are there still men and women like them today?

Both books blend fact with fiction to create memorable characters in a world we are fortunate to visit. Not quite nonfiction – but close.

For more reviews and opinions on these books, check out:

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