BookBrowse Reviews Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

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Mrs. Hemingway

by Naomi Wood

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood X
Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
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    May 2014, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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The novel, Mrs. Hemingway, sheds light on not just the author's four wives but also portrays him in a surprisingly sympathetic light.

Naomi Wood's latest novel, Mrs. Hemingway, is a fictionalized biography covering in turn writer Ernest Hemingway's four wives: Hadley, Fife, Martha and Mary. Each section begins at the point where the woman knows her marriage to the author is over, and then through flashbacks goes on to describe how the relationship began and ultimately ended as a new woman appeared on the scene. Wood seamlessly blends fact and fiction to provide a detailed portrait of the four, and through their eyes readers discover a side of Hemingway that is seldom depicted.

The subject matter covered isn't new; each woman has had at least one biography written about her life and relationship with Hemingway. By fictionalizing the narrative however, Wood provides a different perspective on her heroines, fleshing out the bare bones of fact with richly imagined motivations and emotions. The result is that the wives' love, sorrow, anger and frustration resonate in a way that feels right — closer to truth than not.

The overall tone of this fast-reading novel is melancholic; there's a constant sense of loss and failure that pervade the text. Wood's writing is stellar as she describes the complexities of life with Hemingway:

Everything, now, is done à trois. Breakfast, then swimming; lunch, then bridge; dinner, then drinks in the evening. There are always three breakfast trays, three wet bathing suits, three sets of cards left folded on the table when the game, abruptly and without explanation, ends. Hadley and Ernest are accompanied wherever they go by a third: this woman slips between them as easily as a blade. This is Fife: this is her husband's lover...They lounge around the house – Hadley, Ernest, and Fife — and though they know they are all miserable no one is willing to sound the first retreat; not wife, not husband, not mistress. They have been in the villa like this for weeks, like dancers in relentless motion, trying to exhaust each other into falling.

The author resists the temptation to show Hemingway as a cad or a womanizer, instead revealing him to be someone who was desperately insecure and who simply never wanted to be alone. She renders him as almost pathologically needing to be loved and admired and sinking into deep depression when criticized in any way. It's a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal but one that makes sense; it doesn't feel a stretch in any way to see the novelist in such a light.

By concentrating on just one aspect of the women's lives (i.e., the persona as Hemingway's wife) Wood is able to provide an in-depth view of how each reacted to the end of her marriage. I found that this was also, for me, the book's weakness: it is, perhaps, too focused. It's not that the characters are one-dimensional; they are, in fact, wonderfully described and come across as real people. However, since the wives are portrayed only in the context of Hemingway, there's no sense that they had lives independent of their relationship with the author, nothing besides him that was important to them. It's as if they didn't truly exist before meeting him and ceased to exist once he moved on. I found myself wishing to know more about these remarkable women and just a bit disappointed that so little was said of their separate accomplishments. I also wasn't sure how well Wood provided each woman with her own voice. Each reacted differently to her situation (Hadley seemed resigned, Fife willing to fight for her marriage, etc.), but if they weren't being depicted in crisis mode, I'm not sure I would have found the women to have distinct personalities.

Regardless, Mrs. Hemingway is one of the more convincing and entertaining fictionalized biographies I've read. I found it a fascinating take on four remarkable women, and it certainly inspired me to learn more of their lives. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about Hemingway and the women who inspired him.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review is from the July 9, 2014 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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