I am rather fascinated by authors, I can’t pretend I am not – more dead and classic authors than living ones, though with certain podcasts and events I do you know I am partial to a good chat with a fun living one. I digress. Interestingly I know that not every reader feels like this about authors, they find the books more fascinating, I however am firmly in the ‘let me know all about authors that you can’ camp. This even includes some authors who I haven’t read and one such author I have heard much about and yet not read a word of is Ernest Hemingway (sorry Gran, I know you loved him) so when I discovered lovely living author (who I have had virtual fig roll fights with on this very blog) Naomi Wood’s second novel was going to be about his wives I knew I would have to read it.
Mrs. Hemingway is a fascinating fictional account of the lives of all four of Ernest Hemingway’s wives; Hadley, Fife (or Pauline), Martha and Mary told from their perspectives at various points of their marriage to Hemingway. From the poor and humble beginnings to the darker depressive days of his last years Naomi Wood gives us a novel where the wives become as fascinating, if not more so, than the man whom they all married. A man it seems who wanted to feel like he was truly loved, which in some ways as his fame grew, became all too easy as women threw themselves at him, even if they weren’t his wives or wives to be.
What a pull he has! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.
At the start of Mrs. Hemingway it is a marriage of almost three which we enter. Hadley and Ernest have been joined on their holiday by Hadley’s friend Pauline, or Fife as we come to know her, who we soon learn (from her sister no less, the shock and horror) has become Ernest’s mistress only it seems that the feelings run far more deeply than a mere infatuation or soon to be over indiscretion. We watch, feeling wholly for Hadley, as Hemingway’s first wife inadvertently draws her husband and his lover together whilst her intention is to do quite the opposite. What is marvellously done is what remains unsaid between all three, but particularity what remains unsaid between the two ‘friends’ as things continue. I was heartbroken with Hadley and thought Fife was an utter piece of work, yet strange how as I read on my opinions would change on each wife, and indeed each mistress.
Hadley eats alone at the round table where their books sit on the shelf above. Ernest’s first book of short stories, In Our Time, sits along Scott’s new novel, The Great Gatsby. She remembers one of Ernest’s stories. The images are still so cool and fresh they resurface as vividly as if they were her own memories – how the fish broke the surface of the lake and the sound of them landing was described as gunpowder hitting the water. Hadley could picture everything in that story: the boat out in the bay, the boyfriend and girlfriend trolling for trout, the old sawmill that was now a ruin. But then it came, the moment when the boyfriend tells the girlfriend how it isn’t fun anymore – none of it is fun he tells her, desperate; none of it is going to work. She wonders how much it was about them. The story is called “The End of Something” after all.
Mrs. Hemingway is fascinating for many reasons. Firstly because as I hinted above it is a book which will have you completely on the side of whichever wife you are reading, thinking you will hate the next one and quite possibly coming away from the book feeling admiration and heartbreak for them all for many different reasons. What is wonderful in Wood’s prose is that each wife is very different and also celebrates what was wonderful and unusual about them that made Ernest fall for them and want to marry them all (marriage being something he was vehement about). Each woman has flaws, each woman has certain feelings about Hemingway’s writing, in short each woman is equally fascinating and when you come to the end of one’s narrative you really hope they crop up in the next one.
It is also a fascinating book, not only because it is about all sorts of woman and all sorts of marriages which seems slightly obvious to highlight but is true, because it is a book that really looks at the different emotions that we all go through in our lives. Love, jealousy, rage, hate, happiness, sadness. It also looks at the different shades of love we feel for someone. You can be infatuated. You can be unsure but wooed. You can fall under someone’s spell. You can fall in so fast and out so fast. You can love to hate someone. All these emotions and feelings we have all been through are laid bare in one of the women at some point, or even a few of them at various points, and gives the book a real heightened emotive edge.
He’d be thinking, no doubt, about his life here in the twenties, when he was poorer and happier, a man only once married. His Paris life is a memory Ernest loves to slide over and over until the place is smooth and cool with his affections. Today he would surely be longing for the sawmill apartment and his lost Saint Hadley: a woman all the more exquisite for her generous retirement of the title Mrs. Hemingway.
A title Martha has come to hate.
What I found very admirable, and in its way deeply affecting, about Mrs. Hemingway was that Naomi Wood never seems to favour one wife over another. Nothing they do is judged unless by the wife who happens to be narrating her part of the tale. For example, when we first meet Fife we think ‘what a nasty bitch’, yet when we get to hear her side of the story we start to soften towards her and I could occasionally feel myself starting to bristle against the next wife who was waiting in the wings seemingly to usurp the prior, only for Wood’s account of their actions and motives somehow wins you over again.
Then of course there is the man himself, and in this case as clichéd as it sounds he is the ‘man of mystery’, and indeed the mystery and enigma, at the centre of this book. To each wife he is a different person. A man who seemingly felt he had so much he had to prove that even his successes were never quite good enough. A man who seemed to feel addicted to being loved and needed and admired. A man who didn’t seem to really know himself, or was trying to work himself and the world out through his writing. A fascinating, flawed and incredibly charismatic, dark and talented man.
I say that like I know the man, as I mentioned earlier I haven’t even read any of his fictional writing, I didn’t even know about his ‘infamous death’ (which isn’t really a spoiler as we all know he is dead) before I read Mrs. Hemingway so I came to it, to him and his wives from a very uninformed angle. Well, thanks to Naomi’s wonderful writing (which never shows the amount of research she must have done, my favourite kind of writing) I feel that I have lived through it with them now and I am also desperate to read some of his work.
Mrs. Hemingway is a beautiful novel which initially seems to be about a man of many wives and many times, yet that would sell it short. It is actually about four fascinating women and a man who happened to be lucky enough to have them in his life, no matter how little or how long it was. I highly recommend it whether you be a fan of Hemingway or not, it’s marvellous.
If you would like to hear Naomi talking more about the book, strangely with little old me, then have a listen to the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Who else has read the book and what did you think? If you are a Hemingway fan, where should I head? Which fictional accounts of an author or their lives have you read and would recommend?