I chose to purchase Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway to contribute to my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, which I am currently working through. Although the novel is set in several locations – the Sunday Express mentions in its review that it zips ‘from jazz-age Paris to post-war Cuba via 1930s Florida’ – I chose to include it for Cuba, where Ernest Hemingway lived for some years.
Whilst I tend to be quite sceptical about fictionalised books about real-life figures, particularly the famous and infamous, I was really looking forward to immersing myself within Mrs Hemingway. It has been very favourably reviewed, and was also the winner of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2014, as well as being shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in the same year. Mrs Hemingway tells of four very different women, forced to be strong in their own ways; indeed, the blurb mentions that ‘over the ensuing decades, as each marriage is ignited by passion and deceit, four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love – and lose – the most famous writer of his generation.’ Mrs Hemingway is told entirely using the third person perspective, and follows each wife in turn – Hadley, Fife, Martha, and Mary – in separate sections. This structure, as well as the non-linear fragments within each, work well.
The novel begins in 1926, when Ernest and his wife Hadley are living in France, with their small son, Bumby. At this point, Ernest is already conducting an affair with Hadley’s best friend, Fife. The novel immerses the reader immediately in the non-conformist relationship which the three have, and hints at the danger which it will bring: ‘Everything is now done a trois. Breakfast, then swimming; lunch, then bridge; dinner, then drinks in the evenings. 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.’
When each protagonist is introduced, the reader sees them as wholly developed; there are different intricacies to each character, and their real-life personalities have clearly been researched extensively. There is no sense of overdramatisation, or of exaggeration, as far as I could tell. Each characterisation is perceptive and thoughtful, and Wood is entirely sympathetic and understanding to the women’s plight. Mrs Hemingway is an immersive and easy to read novel, but it still smacks of intelligence.
The scenes throughout Mrs Hemingway are set beautifully and effectively, and I found the novel engaging from the very beginning. Wood has made great use of the fascinating period and story which Ernest Hemingway’s real life, and many affairs, gives. He comes across as the unscrupulous fellow that he was at times, but glimpses are given which demonstrate things which he did to make himself so popular with womankind. ‘How easily he attracts women,’ Wood writes. ‘How they come in droves, unwelcome as moths.’