Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Four wives and an addiction to marriage. Despite the difficulty he had remaining faithful, Hemingway didn’t like being single, he liked his women to be contracted to him and then to have his liberty.

Though not a huge fan of his work, being more of a Steinbeck admirer than Hemingway, his connection to France and that group of Americans referred to as the lost generation, those who stayed or returned to Europe after the war, has ensured another kind of following and spawned an entire collection of literature, that which reimagines the lives of the artists, writers, their wives, mistresses and hangers-on. So I am one of those who enjoys reading more about him, than reading his actual work.

Thus far, I enjoyed meeting Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife through Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s wife in Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda and Gertrude Stein and others in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He even made an appearance in Francisco Haghenbeck’s The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo while she was hanging out in Paris with Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe and the Surrealists.

Mrs HemingwayNaomi Wood joins the club of authors channelling the voices of expat writers wives who lived in Paris, fascinating not just because they were the wives of men who wrote famous stories, but because they are women who made the decision to abandon the comfortable and familiar, to leave their country and family behind.

Both Hadley Richardson and Zelda Fitzgerald arrived in the shadow of their husbands dreams, without any ambition other than to be a faithful and supportive wife. As such, they encountered innumerable challenges in trying to create a satisfactory home life in a foreign country.

All of Hemingway’s wives spent time living in Paris, both the city and the man the thread that bound them together. Of the four, Martha and Mary perhaps fared better, both working journalists living there on their own terms, with their own purpose outside of marriage.

The book is structured in four equal parts, each dedicated to one wife and starts by portending the end, scenes that evoke the sense of an ending while they also contain the feminine distraction that signals the introduction of the next potential marriage candidate. Not one of the wives will be immune to the repetitive Hemingway pattern. It is a pattern he repeats all his life until the brutal ends.

With each end, we witness the beginning and each wife is witness to the new arrival and a foreshadowing of her demise. The novel centres around how he entered and exited these relationships without dwelling on the mundane, the structure keeping up the pace and instilling a sense of anticipation in the reader, wanting to know what could have happened in between times to change things.

“Sitting beside this woman to whom Ernest as already dedicated a poem, Martha recognizes Mary suddenly for what she is: her ticket out of here. This morning she saw that Ernest won’t let her break things off if there’s any chance he’s going to be alone. What he fears is loneliness, and whatever brutish thoughts he has when he is left untended. Only is he is assured of another wife will he let his present wife go.”

Like a poem, there is symmetry to the four wives and while they all love their husband and support him, none can prevent his inclination towards self-destruction, his propensity for excess. It is an insightful book in the way it presents the four relationships, carefully chosen scenes depicting the emergence and decline of their relationship.

We witness the relationships come and go like waves rising out of the ocean, resplendent at their peak, despite containing the knowledge of their inevitable destiny, to crash, disappear and reform anew. Hemingway rode the waves for as long as he could, writing prolifically, often using his own experiences as his subject matter. Perhaps he finally made it to the foreshore and saw the metaphoric waves for what they are, water rising and falling until it inevitably reaches the shore and destroys itself.

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

A worthy addition to the collection of literature that imagines the lives of Hemingway, his wives and the lost generation.

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33 thoughts on “Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

  1. How many times have I said to you, after reading one of your reviews, “I must read this book”. Well I am doing it again :).

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      • Glad to be there, Claire :). I am tempted to download it so I can start reading it immediately, but I really think this is a book I want to hold in my hands and see on the table beside me.

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      • Well I have read The Paris Wife and A Moveable Feast so I’m on my way. I will order it now and have the actual book in a couple of days. I just started The Signature of all Things anyway.

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      • Yes, I am loving it, thanks. Ok, i will get ZA as well. Have you read Behind the Beautiful Forevers? I am almost finished it and really liked it as well.

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      • No, but have read great things about it. In a slow reading period currently, but hoping that is about to change as I am on holiday next week, although likely to be lots of socialising 🙂 so may not read much either!

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      • Nothing wrong with socializing! Have fun :). And read it in the winter when you want to stay indoors and read.

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  2. Beautiful review! I liked this book, but I think I liked Z and The Paris Wife a little better. I need to check out The Secret Book or Frida Kahlo that you mentioned, it sounds right up my alley!

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    • Yes, this book is quite different in its structure and doesn’t take us into the lives of the characters in the same way as The Paris Wife and Z, but an insightful narrative all the same. I hope you seek out The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo too.

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  3. I read The Paris Wife earlier this year and loved it. I wasn’t sure if I would want to read about Hemingway’s other marriages (being firmly in “camp Hadley”), but I think I will put this book on my wish list now. Thanks for your review.

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  4. You started the review with the words “addiction to marriage”. I am curious if there was any reference/allusion to his alcohol addiction in the book? Did it play a role in his relationships with these women?

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    • A little with the demise of his second marriage, but the perspective sits firmly with the women and doesn’t really analyse Hemingway’s view, it is the perspective of his wives that paints a picture of him, as with the quote used.

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    • It is interesting that many woman writers are taking on the subject and giving voice to the wives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, there continues to be a fascination about those who came to live in Paris in the early 1900’s inspiring both readers and pilgrims. 🙂

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  5. I have passed this onto Christina who has been reading a number of the books you mention above. For myself I promise to add this to the list and then read all of them on my next jaunt over the pond.

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  6. I had to read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ for exam purposes when I was far too young to appreciate it and have avoided Hemingway ever since. However, I heard parts of this read on the radio and it did catch my attention. Perhaps reading about other women who have had problems with Hemingway might be my way in 🙂

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  7. I’m in a similar camp to you re Hemingway, Claire, and perhaps that’s why this book has been sitting in my tbr not making any progress up the pile despite the many good reviews I’ve read. However, as ever, you’re pretty coinvincing!

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    • Thanks Susan, the book really has little to do with Hemingway’s writing and says a lot more about Naomi Woods talent for creating an interesting framework from which to view his other tendencies. She certainly left me wanting to know more about Martha as a person.

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  8. I’m glad to know there is a chapter for each wife, as when I hear the title Mrs. Hemingway I kept asking myself, “Which one?” I normally haven’t enjoyed Hemingway’s writing, but reading The Paris Wife helped open my eyes and appreciate him more, as did visiting his home in Key West.

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  9. Great review as ever, Claire. I’m quite tempted by this book, but feel I should read A Movable Feast first to gain a better appreciation of Hemingway’s life in Paris. I don’t know if you’ve come across Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas, but it’s a fictionalised account of a couple of years EV-M spent in Paris trying to live the life of his idol, Hemingway. It’s one of my favourite reads of the year thus far.

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    • Thanks Jacqui, there is a whole collection of writing that helps us to know Hemingway and some good recent books as well as his own A Moveable Feast. They all give a different perspective and can sway opinion of him for sure. A good place to start though. Thanks for the recommendation of Enrique Vila-Matas, I shall add it to ever increasing list.

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  10. Beautiful review, Claire. Hemingway was one of my favourite authors for a long time. I loved his short stories and some of his novels. But I haven’t read a book by him in a long time and so I don’t know whether I will like him as much, now. His short stories, when they hit the mark are very, very good (and when they don’t, one wonders what he was trying there – atleast that is what I felt). I liked ‘A Moveable Feast’ and also ‘Fiesta : The Sun Also Rises’. This book looks quite interesting. It is interesting that though Hemingway was a serial philanderer, he wanted to be married at all times. He was such a contradiction, as a person. I loved your review of the Zelda Fitzgerald novel, ‘Z : A Novel of Zelda’. I haven’t read it yet, but one of my friends is a huge Zelda Fitzgerald fan and so I got it for her. So, thanks to you, there is one more admirer of that book 🙂

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  11. Thank you, Claire, an excellent recommendation. I had read the Paris Wife and was interested to see a different interpretation. Mrs Hemmingway is well written and I love the way she introduces the next wife through the previous one. What a character Hemmingway must have been! Now I’m going to read “A Novel of Zelda”.

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  12. No question that Hemingway was a complex character – and those around him, especially his wives, bore the brunt of the consequences. I have to admit I am a fan of his writing, largely because of the sparsity of his style. I think the styling stands up even today, 90 years or so after he began exploring the ‘stripped down’ approach to prose. And it has to be the fantasy of any Hemingway fan to be able to take a metaphorical taxi ride through modern Paris and somehow end up in 1923, in that cafe with Hemingway and Zelda and the rest of the group, and discover them as people. Something we can, at least, do through literature even if Einstein’s physics are less co-operative for the reality.

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