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Paula McLain risks the scorn of Hemingway purists in "The Paris Wife," a fictional narrative of Ernest Hemingway's expatriate days with his first spouse, Hadley Richardson.

Yet the best seller is engrossing, in a middlebrow sort of way, and the portions set among the American literati in Europe during the 1920s are often delicious. So is the reminder that the man many consider the greatest writer of his generation led a personal life as large and adventurous as his work.

Hadley was the first to discover this, according to "The Paris Wife," which opens as the wide-eyed, St. Louis-born Hadley meets a brash, talented boy from Oak Park -- who is "writing trash copy for Firestone tires." She is 28; he 21 -- and redolent of "bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cotton."

The couple goes to dinner: "He put the olive on my tongue, and as I closed my mouth around it, oily and warm with salt, I found myself flushing from the deliciousness but also the intimacy, his fork in my mouth."

In no time, Hadley is "tired of being sensible" and ready to "push with everything I had the other way." She and Hemingway marry, in 1921, with the intention of realizing Hemingway's dream of making a mark on the literary world:

" 'Are you happy?' he said softly. 'You know I am. Do you need to ask?' 'I like asking,' he said. 'I like to hear it, even knowing what I'm going to hear.'"

"The Paris Wife" continues in this romance novel-esque manner for well over 100 pages, often irritating this reader (who was raised on Hemingway, both the work and the man, and doesn't like her idols reduced to mush).

But then the book improves -- and McLain's dogged research on Hadley, Hemingway and their era begins to pay off. She sticks to the broad truths, and brings such luminaries as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Archibald MacLeish to the fore.

By now, the Hemingways are based in Paris, a place Hemingway loves from the start and Hadley, for a long time, loathes. Her response, unfathomable to today's woman, is to wallow in her misery while Hemingway, still trying to break out as a writer, barely makes ends meet as a correspondent for the Toronto Star.

"Near Thanksgiving 1922, the Star sent Ernest to cover a peace conference in Lausanne that would decide the territorial dispute between Greece and Turkey," recalls Hadley, the book's main narrator. "We decided that he would go alone, and that I would join him."

The assignment forever alters the couple's young marriage -- and nearly derails Hemingway's dreams -- when he, in a cable to Hadley, mentions that a fellow journalist (Lincoln Steffens) has offered to send some of Hemingway's stories to an editor friend at Cosmopolitan.

Hadley, unasked, gathers up the whole of Hemingway's work to date, placing it in a valise -- which is stolen from the train she takes to Switzerland.

The loss is incalculable. ("He had writing the way other people had religion," Hadley says.) Yet, later, Gertrude Stein will tell Hemingway, "I think your losing everything has been a blessing. You needed to be free. To start with nothing and make something truly new."

This proves true when reviewers of his first published fiction rave, per Hadley, "He was inventing something new ... and was a writer to watch."

Hadley becomes pregnant in the midst of this, giving birth to a son, John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway, the Nicanor for the "fine young torero" Nicanor Villoalta whom Hadley and Hemingway had admired at Pamplona. The child, known more economically as "Bumby," will make history with his first word -- "Papa."

These are the early days of Hemingway's rise to fame, with Hadley integral to the launch. But McLain's portrayal of her, as endlessly naive and self-effacing, never wavers and remains hard to take.

"If the women of Paris were peacocks, I was a garden variety hen," she notes, describing herself as round of face and with "plump arms," a woman who "didn't care enough about clothes to do any thinking about what would suit me."

She tells us how Hemingway "wanted everything there was and more than that" -- but seems to have no clue what she wants. When, in Pamplona, a woman (who will become Lady Brett Ashley in "The Sun Also Rises") insinuates herself into Hemingway's life, Hadley doesn't speak up.

It comes as no surprise, then, when Hemingway's first book, "In Our Time," is accepted for publication in America, that Hadley says, "It was the end of Ernest's struggle with apprenticeship, and an end to other things as well. He would never again be unknown. We would never again be this happy."

Soon, Pauline Pfeiffer and her sister, Jinny, come to Paris, the fashionable playgirl daughters of a wealthy Texas landowner. Pauline, who works for Vogue, will be the Hemingways' undoing (with Hadley's side of the story painting Hemingway as a real cad).

"I couldn't be fresh eyes and a fresh smile after five years," Hadley says. "I couldn't be new."

McLain gives Hemingway his own platform n the form of several italicized streams of consciousness in which he rationalizes the situation while making no excuses. The effort is unconvincing -- most likely because McLain is not Hemingway. She is best when she takes the Hemingways to Pamplona, to the Alps and to the French and Italian rivieras -- often with other expatriate authors. Some of the bullfighting scenes are wonderful, particularly one in which a young matador, having slain a bull, is taken by Hadley and has one of the bull's ears delivered to her in the stands.

But there is little else here to give us the sights, sounds, smells, the very feel of the Hemingways' extraordinary experiences abroad during the heady aftermath of World War I.

Hemingway gave us all that in "A Moveable Feast," his own rich account of the time -- a book published posthumously by his fourth wife, Mary.

Perhaps "The Paris Wife" will do its readers a great service by whetting their appetites for the real thing.

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.

The Paris Wife

By Paula McLain

Ballantine Books

320 pages, $25