Hemingway begins by describing the “bad weather” during the winter in Paris and the cafés filled with alcoholics. He goes to work in a café, where he sees a beautiful woman. He stares at the woman, and the sight of her inspires his writing. Later, he goes home and makes plans to go on a trip with his wife, Hadley. When they return, the weather in Paris is beautiful, but still cold, and Hemingway is always hungry. He sometimes struggles with writer’s block, but when this happens reassures himself that all he needs to do is “write one true sentence” and the rest will follow. He often goes to visit Gertrude Stein at her home at 27 rue de Fleurus, where she lives with her partner, Alice B. Toklas. Stein serves as a mentor to Hemingway, advising him on writing, buying art, and other matters. She is a hugely influential figure in the Parisian artistic and literary community. Hemingway admits that they clash over the issue of sexuality, due to the fact that Hemingway is somewhat sexually conservative.
During his time in Paris Hemingway cannot afford to buy books, but Sylvia Beach allows him to join the rental library of Shakespeare and Company, her English-language bookshop, at a discounted rate. Sometimes Hemingway sees James Joyce eating with his wife Nora and their two children at the expensive restaurant Michaud’s, but he cannot afford to go there himself. Hemingway enjoys the walk from his apartment to the River Seine, where he strolls past stalls selling books and fishermen catching fish called goujon. He notes that sometimes the weather in Paris brightens after the winter, only to turn cold and rainy again. This “false spring” is “truly sad” and “frightening” to him.
One morning Hemingway buys a racing paper and decides to go to the races. At first Hadley worries that they do not have enough money to bet, but they end up making an enjoyable day out of it, packing sandwiches and a bottle of wine with them. They end up winning and they use the money to buy champagne and eat at Michaud’s. They continue betting at the races, but eventually Hemingway is concerned that “going racing” is putting a strain on their lives. He has lunch with Mike Ward, who advises him that quitting the races is a good idea.
Hemingway often goes to 27 rue de Fleurus in the afternoons, where he and Stein discuss people and literature, among other topics. Stein is critical of Hemingway’s literary tastes and she holds grudges against many of the people that Hemingway likes, such as Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Stein’s car breaks down, and when she takes it to the garage she is disappointed by the mechanic’s attempt to fix it. The garage keeper comments that the mechanic is part of a “génération perdue” or “lost generation.” Stein concurs, claiming that men of Hemingway’s generation who served in the war developed a nihilistic attitude and a tendency for destructive alcoholism.
Hemingway is poor during his years in Paris, and thus sometimes he is forced to skip meals. This can be difficult, as Paris is filled with cafés and bakeries serving delicious-smelling food. However he also finds that hunger heightens his perceptions and allows him to view paintings in a more intense way. Sylvia urges him to eat and not to work too hard. After this conversation, Hemingway feels embarrassed and he curses himself for being a “dirty phony saint and martyr.”
Hemingway lives near the Closerie des Lilas café, where he sometimes sees poets such as Blaise Cendrars. One day, Hemingway sees Ford Madox Ford there. Hemingway usually tries to avoid Ford because he smells so bad and speaks in a nonsensical manner. Hemingway finds it difficult to believe that the man in front of him is truly Ford, the great writer. One spring evening Hemingway meets the painter Pascin at the Dôme. Pascin is accompanied by two sisters, whom he treats with a flirtatious and somewhat derogatory manner.
Hemingway notes that Ezra is an exceptionally generous friend. Ezra’s studio is filled with paintings by Japanese artists who wear their hair long; while Hemingway admires the men’s hair, he doesn’t understand their paintings. Hemingway does like the paintings of Ezra’s wife Dorothy, on the other hand. Hemingway teaches Ezra to box at Ezra’s studio, where he meets the painter Wyndham Lewis. Lewis is a “nasty” and cringe-worthy individual whom Gertrude Stein nicknames the “measuring worm.” After years of close friendship, Hemingway and Stein’s relationship ends abruptly one day when Hemingway accidentally overhears a private conversation between Stein and Alice.
At Ezra’s studio, Hemingway meets the poet Ernest Walsh, who is accompanied by two women in mink coats. The women tell Hemingway that Walsh earns an enormous amount of money from his poetry. Later, Walsh invites Hemingway to a lavish lunch and tells him that he is awarding him a prize. Hemingway learns afterward that Walsh told the same thing to many other writers, including Ezra and James Joyce. Taking advantage of the Shakespeare and Company library, Hemingway reads work by Russian authors such as Turgenev, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. He meets the poet Evan Shipman at the Lilas and the two discuss Dostoevsky and Tolstoy over whisky. The waiter, Jean, keeps bringing them more whisky even when they protest that they do not want any.
Ezra gives Hemingway a jar of opium to give to Ralph Cheever Dunning, a poet and opium addict, instructing Hemingway to save it for an emergency. One day Ezra calls Hemingway when he believes that Dunning is on the brink of death, but when Hemingway attempts to give Dunning the opium Dunning throws it back at him furiously. Hemingway thinks that Dunning perhaps mistook him for “an agent of evil.”
After Bumby is born, Hemingway and Hadley begin spending the winters in Austria. There they go skiing with the “pioneer” high mountain skier Walther Lent. Their time in Austria is idyllic; they eat delicious meals, read books from Shakespeare and Company, and Hemingway completes his revisions of the first draft of The Sun Also Rises. One winter, several skiers die in a series of avalanches, but Hemingway notes that this disaster does not compare to the emotional catastrophe of the following year, which is the beginning of the end of his and Hadley’s marriage.
Hemingway describes Scott Fitzgerald, noting that he has attractive, somewhat feminine features. Hemingway meets Scott and the pitcher Dunc Chaplin at the Dingo bar; Scott praises Hemingway’s work, which simultaneously pleases and embarrasses Hemingway. Scott asks Hemingway to accompany him on a trip to Lyon to collect a car that he and Zelda left there. When Hemingway shows up at the train station, Scott isn’t there, and the two do not end up finding each other until the day after Hemingway arrives in Lyon. During the trip, Scott behaves in a melodramatic, hypochondriac manner, insisting that he is about to die and forcing Hemingway to take care of him. Scott is constantly thinking about Zelda and, after calling her, he refuses to eat anything.
When they return to Paris, Scott brings Hemingway a copy of The Great Gatsby, which Hemingway reads and admires. He invites Hemingway and Hadley to lunch at his apartment. Zelda is nursing a terrible hangover and Hemingway feels convinced that she is going to prevent Scott from working later. Hemingway notices that Scott often behaves in a rude manner to his “inferiors,” and that he becomes angry when Hemingway fails to show him a draft of The Sun Also Rises. After Zelda has a nervous breakdown, Scott and Hemingway have lunch at Michaud’s, and Scott admits that Zelda has made him feel insecure about the size of his penis. Hemingway examines Scott before assuring him that he is perfectly normal and warning him that Zelda wants to “destroy” him.
When Hemingway works in cafés, he is sometimes interrupted by other customers. One day, a young man harasses Hemingway as he works. They have a hostile (if playful) conversation, and Hemingway admits that he hopes the young man grows up to be a famous critic, although this doesn’t turn out to be the case.
Ezra is always doing favors for other people, and one day begins a project with Natalie Clifford Barney to raise money in order to help T.S. Eliot quit his day job at the bank. However, the campaign comes to a premature end after the publication of The Waste Land, when it becomes clear Eliot no longer needs financial support.
Inspired by Ezra’s Japanese friends, Hemingway decides to grow his hair long. He knows other people will consider him “damned,” but he notes that he and Hadley enjoy being seen as “damned together.” This is one of the simple “secret pleasures” that characterizes their life together. In Austria, the hotel keeper suggests that long hair is a “revolt against the years of war” and gives Hemingway a herbal tonic to help his hair grow faster.
Hemingway is charged with looking after Larry Gains, a black Canadian boxer who comes to Paris to fight at the Stade Anastasie, a “dance hall restaurant” sometimes used as a boxing ring. Larry fights well and wins his match.
During the summers, Hemingway and Hadley leave Bumby with a nanny and the nanny’s husband, Touton. Touton teaches Bumby many French mannerisms and sayings, which Bumby precociously repeats to the amusement of Hemingway and his friends. Bumby is concerned for Scott, sensing that Scott is suffering from alcoholism and mental health problems. Back in America, Hemingway and Pauline attend a Princeton football game with Scott, Zelda, and Henry “Mike” Strater. Scott and Zelda behave in a foolish, reckless manner, and Hemingway and Mike are left attempting to mend the carnage in their wake.
Hemingway describes one winter in Austria during which “the rich” arrive at the hotel, preceded by their “pilot fish.” It is during this winter that Pauline enters Hemingway and Hadley’s lives, and Hemingway expresses regret about the way in which his and Hadley’s marriage ends. In the final chapter of the book, Hemingway describes Evan Shipman coming to Cuba while Evan is sick with pancreatic cancer. Evan reminds Hemingway of the importance of recording his memories of Paris, telling him: “you write for all of us.”