Book Review: Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Mrs Hemmingway

With a trip to Cuba on the horizon I must admit to a vested interest in Ernest Hemingway at the moment.  Despite this, I have had this book  by Naomi Wood on the periphery of my radar for a little while now and was very pleased to pick up a bargain copy on a recent visit to Harbour Books in Whitstable.

I had a little flirtation with Hemingway during an American Lit module at University and I still have a very battered copy of some of his works.  However, having read so many great reviews of this book I thought this was a good place to start becoming reacquainted.  The Daily Telegraph said “Mrs. Hemingway feels truer than most of the biographies, and more real than many novels”.  

Hemingway had four wives: Hadley, Pauline (Fife), Martha and Mary.  This book is based on their real life correspondence, love letters and telegrams. Each wife gives account of her marriage to Hemingway, each mistakenly believing she had married him for life.  The story starts in the 1920’s in Antibes, France and finishes in Idaho in 1961, taking in Paris, London, Key West and Cuba along the way.

This book could be frivolous, all cocktails and parties, if it weren’t so darn heart breaking.  We see this great talent, the life and soul of the party desired by women, envied and worshipped by men gradually drinking himself into oblivion, destroying himself and mortally wounding the women closest to him.

I loved the scenes in involving F. Scott  Fitzgerald and Zelda, apart from the glamour, they served to add an authenticity to the novel.  Hemingway famously did not get on with Zelda and there is a wonderful scene in the book when he carries her over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift.

The extensive research Wood must have done to create this book is clear in the way she inhabits the characters of each of the Mrs Hemingway’s.   She captures the transition from one wife to the next with a poignancy that is neither sentimental nor patronising.

Hadley: “This thought makes her tread slower on the sand.  She knows that the empty spaces inside her are the same as the empty spaces inside him because they match, because their geographies correspond.  He does not match Fife, not like this”

Fife: “They sit in the dining room that evening: her and Ernest, Sara and Gerald.  Martha is the fifth guest at the table: invisible and mute but loud as hell”

A tribute to each of the wives is their ability to develop a friendship with one another despite being the third person in one of the others marriages.  I guess being married to Hemingway gave you membership to an exclusive club.  Despite his cheating, womanising and drinking he was undeservedly rewarded with love and loyalty from each wife, even when no longer married to him.

“Should Fife be asking for help  it makes her feel ridiculous to be asking this of his ex wife……… Fife hangs up and sinks the last of the martini.  She sucks at the tangy green olive, spitting the pit back in the glass.  This is what her passion for Ernest feels like.  She wants to have him all the way down to the stone”

I swung between frustration that these women put up with his selfishness, and his ego and yet I also admired each of them.  Even when Hemingway was himself becoming ridiculous, they maintained an admirable dignity

“There weren’t two women in her marriage, there were always four- Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary.  The thing was not to be heartbroken about it”.

This book has whetted my appetite not so much for the works of Hemingway but for the story of his crazy life and character.  If you’re interested you may want to listen to this episode  of Great lives where Michael Palin and Naomi Wood discuss the life of Ernest Hemingway.

This is a beautifully written novel and one I recommend to you.

2 Comments

  1. September 30, 2015 / 11:32 am

    Thank you for link to Great Lives, I didn’t know about this and I can’t wait to listen! All hail R4!

    Lovely review, I adore this book so much. It is a very sympathetic telling of the wives that I think is lacked in previous depictions of Hemingway’s life. It even made me like Fife, which I hadn’t before.

    • September 30, 2015 / 8:01 pm

      Thanks Alice. I adored this book too. I actually ended up almost favouring Fife over the others which surprised me. I’ve only recently discovered Great Lives, absolutely all hail R4!

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