I’ve always loved modern historical fiction; the ability that some authors have to take real life people from the last 100 years and bring them to life just astounds me, and I have always found it a good way to spark my interest in a particular person or time period, leading me on to reading non-fiction on the subject.
That is exactly the case with Mrs. Hemingway. For all that I’m a former student of American Literature, I’ve read very little Hemingway. I studied The Sun Also Rises at university, and enjoyed it up to a point, but I haven’t ever really felt any overwhelming urge to read any more of his work. I’ve also never really read much about him as a man; I knew he had been married multiple times, and I knew the story of one of his wives losing a case full of his work, but other than that, I went into Mrs. Hemingway in the dark about this great novelist’s private life.
Naomi Wood dedicates a section to each of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives; starting with Hadley, onto Fife, Martha and Mary. It would have been easy to separate these four stories out, telling them from when they first met Hemingway through to the end of their marriage, but Wood resists this temptation. Instead, each section starts at the end of the marriage, and at various points flashes back to the first point of meeting. Hemingway’s marriages weren’t independent of each other; each relationship (aside from his first) began as an extra marital affair. There are no gaps between them; from the moment he starts a relationship with Hadley, until his death forty years later, he is never alone.
The women are written beautifully, Wood’s writing is just wonderful, and these four intelligent, creative and fantastic women come alive through her words. We see how they lose themselves to this man who treated them badly; the three latter women watch him treat the incumbent wife dreadfully, and yet still feel surprised and betrayed when they do the same to them.
Martha is their fifth guest at the table: invisible and mute, but loud as hell.
Each woman is distinctive, having her own voice, ambitions and character, and yet they all have the same flaw. They are all unable to resist the spell that Ernest Hemingway casts over them, and it’s fascinating to watch them fall in love, made to feel so special by this man, only to wonder where their dignity has gone as they battle to keep him.
I also very much enjoyed the cameos by the celebrities of the era; Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Sara and Murphy, Sylvia Beach, Pablo Picasso. It made me want to read much more about the ex-pat community in Paris in the 1920s, and I’ve already added a number of books to my list!
Mrs. Hemingway is a work of fiction, with Naomi Wood making sure that the reader knows that it was born out of her imagination. She has borrowed these women from literary history and brought them to life beautifully. This was a library book, but I can see myself purchasing it so I can read it again in the future.
Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
First published: February 2014