I did not know much about Heminway's biography and so I feel like a learned a bit here. I have read some stuff about Gerald and Sara Murphy and the whole group of french expats in the 1920s and knew Hemingway to have been a part of the group (also have read Tender is the Night), but found this novel (from the perspective of Hadley Hemingway) to be interesting and new.
McLain presents a vivid picture and gives lots of interesting commentary and about love and relationships: "Harrison wasn't my failed prince and I wasn't his victim. He hadn't led me on at all; I'd led myself on." Hadley realizes early on about her unrequited feelings for her piano teacher. "We say what we mean, but it's hard isn't it? It might be the hardest thing of all, being really honest." and "Remember no one made you do anything. It's never anyone but you who does anything, and for that reason alone you shouldn't be sorry....You might as well bring yourself down and make yourself sick with all you do because this is the only world there is." works well as a description of Ernest's feelings after cheating on Hadley, but it is also amazingly appropriate description for the choices made under the throes of addiction.
She also hits on an interesting theme with her description of the artist's need to pursue his work: "It would be the hardest lesson my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking. I couldn't reach into every part of Ernest and he didn't want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to." Coupled with this, McLain tries to illuminate how out of date Hadley's idea of womanhood and wifehood is for the time. Hadley is almost embarrassed to be the supportive wife (rather than a woman in her own right). Some of the self criticisms to which Hadley is subjected reminded me of Nancy Horan's portrayal of Mamah in Loving Frank (especially given that Mamah was also working with Ellen Key Borthwick).
Several times Hadley and Ernest reminded me of the characters in Fitzgerald's Beautiful and the Damned (written before Hemingway and Fitzgerald met). I was not sure if McLain was intentionally invoking this masterpiece or if it was unintentional, but her constant harping on the loss of money (despite their need for domestic help even though Hadley is home and bored all the time?) and the drunken scenes of things falling apart reminded me so much of that novel.
I did not like her "Ernest" chapters. About 3-4 times in the novel we had a short italicized chapter that was supposedly written by Ernest. I found these startlingly out of place (they broke the flow) and unnecessary. The novel is in Hadley's voice, it felt someone inappropriate to bring him into it this way.
I was also slightly annoyed at the "oceans" of alcohol. At least three times in the novel McLain describes how much they've had to drink as "oceanic"...I would have liked a new metaphor or at least not the same one repeated.
Overall it is compelling, easy to digest, and entertaining.