My Life in Books

5 books that reflect Paula McLain's 'obsessive' love for historical fiction

The author, whose latest novel Love and Ruin revolves around the love life of Ernest Hemingway, talks about the books she's loved reading over the years.
Paula McLain is an American author. (Melanie Acevedo/Penguin Random House)

Paula McLain is an American author known for the bestselling novel The Paris Wife, which is a fictionalized account of legendary writer and author Ernest Hemingway's first marriage. Her latest book, Love and Ruin, is a biographical novel that again follows Hemingway's love life, this time looking at his third marriage to journalist Martha Gellhorn.

McLain tells CBC Books that she's been "continually obsessed" with fascinating figures or stories from the past. Below, McLain talks about the books she's loved reading over the years. 

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours is an award-winning 1998 novel written by Michael Cunningham. (Getty Images/Picador)

"When I began writing The Paris Wife, I kept Cunningham's gorgeous novel on my desk to read and re-read in snippets every day, trying to understand how he manages to get at the deepest core of his historical subject, Virginia Woolf, so that her inner life shimmers with authenticity. All of his characters come to life beautifully, and his overarching theme is incredibly moving to me: how literature changes us, creating unbreakable connections and bringing meaning to our lives. I can't think of many other writers who paint as artfully at the sentence level. To me, this is a perfect book."

The Master by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet. (Wikimedia Commons/Scribner)

"Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004, Tóibín's fifth novel takes up the life, times and consciousness of Henry James. Like The Hours, I came to see this as a master text, if you will, for how to dramatize and illuminate a historical figure, someone who actually lived, so that the result feels real, true and decidedly human. Tóibín narrows his scope to four years in James' life (1895-1899) and works to plumb only a few of his subject's relationships with others. The effect is intimate and quietly convincing, like peering into a small velvet box. And while we also get to see James' creative process, and hear some pleasurable 'industry' gossip, what has really stayed with me is how Tóibín's version of James carves out a pristine island of loneliness and emotional control so that he might save his resources for his work.  

"Personally speaking, I developed such a professional crush on Colm Tóibín that once, when we were featured at the same book festival together, I was too embarrassed to approach him at a cocktail party. If the universe could arrange it, I'd like to do this moment over!"

Euphoria by Lily King

Lily King is an American novelist. (HarperCollins/

"Embraced by thousands of book clubs and countless readers since it appeared in 2014, King's tale gives us a mesmerizing glimpse into 1930's New Guinea. Inspired by Margaret Mead, King's cultural anthropologist, Nell Stone, is drawn into a savage and fascinating world and a feverish love triangle simultaneously. As obsessions rise to a pitch, the story sweeps us along toward tragedy and heartbreak. An intense and gratifying read full of prose that is jaw-droppingly good. I wish I had written this book!"

Early One Morning by Virginia Baily

Virginia Baily is a bestselling UK author. ( Bay Books )

"In Baily's second novel, an Italian woman, Chiara Ravello, makes an impossible choice in war-torn 1944 Rome to rescue a Jewish child before he can be sent off to the Nazi camps with his family. The novel is often wrenching as it traces the complex repercussions of Chiara's well-meaning actions, and ends incandescently, with great emotional power. Ultimately the story shows us how love pushes us past what we're capable of, and somehow — impossibly —reclaims us when we're long past saving."

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Priya Parmar is a U.K. author and editor. (Doubleday/

"More Virginia Woolf! This is a radiant and original novel about the Bloomsbury Set, centered on Woolf's sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. In prose that's energetic and irrepressible, with charm and brio to spare, Parmar invites us to that moment in history when famous minds and encounters shaped the landscape of art and letters. Even more captivating is the tension between these two sisters caught on the threshold of betrayal and transgression. New readers to Parmar's work: prepare to be dazzled."


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