Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck

Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck
NAL Trade
ISBN-10: 0451237889
ISBN-13: 978-0451237880
352 pages
September 4, 2012

Every time I think I am done reading about Ernest Hemingway (EMH), another book seems to magically appear so that I can’t break away for a while. Last week and weekend I read two more books related to the writer, one fiction and another non-fiction. Both were captivating, but Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck was the one that I really could not stop reading. Hemingway’s Girl is near the top of my EMH as a character in fiction book list.
The time is 1935 and the main character is nineteen-year-old Mariella Bennet, a young woman trying to keep her family afloat after the death of her father, a struggling fisherman in Key West. She gambles, steals, and does whatever odd jobs she can for the rent money to keep her depressed mother and two little sisters in their small house. Eventually, Mariella gets a job as a maid in the Hemingway household due to her chance meetings with EMH around town and his attraction for her and her adeptness at standing up to the already iconic writer.
The prologue begins in 1961 a couple of days after EMH’s death. Mariella is introduced with graying hair and is fishing with her son Jake on their boat Corrida. Of course her son was named after Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises and her boat’s name is homage to EMH’s love of bullfighting. As an EMH aficionado, these details are the things I enjoyed about Ms. Robuck’s tale. The prologue also has Mariella thinking to herself that her son is just like his father. I was hooked then, wanting to know if Ms. Robuck weaves her tale making EMH the boy’s father.
I highlighted many good passages and quotes from the book. Here are a few:
  • She remembered when Hemingway had planted a banyan at his house and told her its parasitic roots were like human desire. At the time she’s thought it romantic. She hadn’t understood his warning.
  • That night at the rum bar, Mariella watched Papa while she smoked. He still complained about the locals, but spent more time entertaining his audience with tales of the fish that grew more dramatic with each retelling. As she stubbed out her third cigarette, she acknowledged her increasing disdain for him. His endless boasting around the rich men; his foul, racist language; his complaints about critics; his overblown stories of game hunting in Africa; his flirtation with Jinny. The way he got off on Mariella’s attraction for him around his wife. It diminished him. He used to seem so authentic, but lately she found him replaced by a sunburned, overfed legend of his own making. She felt strongly that he was in character, forever trying to hold up his image for the men around him.
  • He looked like a bull struck by a sword at a bullfight, emblazoned with anger and ready to maul.
  • Mariella looked at the people in the room and loved them deeply. In a rush, she felt the physical melancholy of vacation’s end settle over her. Its shadow fell over everyone in the room. She knew all these people would start leaving, and they would have to go back to work, and she would be without Gavin during the week, and hurricane season would rush into full swing. Instead of the joy and expectation of time left on holiday, she felt the dread of numbered days, and even though she missed her family greatly, she knew that these people would never again be together, like this, on an island at the edge of the world.
I appreciated Ms. Robuck’s research and her historical accuracy. The main characters were there, including EMH’s good friends Charles and Lorine Thompson and John and Katy Dos Passos, his wife, Pauline, his kids Bumby, Patrick, and Gregory, Ada the nanny, Toby the caretaker, and Grant and Jane Mason. All were portrayed as I have read about them again and again. Ms. Robuck also added her own characters: Gavin, the World War I vet with whom Mariella falls in love, Mariella’s Cuban mother Eva, her sisters Estelle and Lulu, John, another veteran who had lost his legs at the Argonne, Nicholas the neighbor, and others.
Another aspect of this book I appreciated was Ms. Robuck’s honest portrayal of EMH. Through Mariella and others, she exposes his darker sides, as well as his kindness and generosity and genuine love of his community. We see his humor, intelligence, and physical prowess, but also we see his need for praise, his inflated ego, his callousness at times, and his rationalization of bad behavior. The character that never gets much sympathy is poor Pauline, but she does have some redeeming qualities in the end. We see how her relationship with EMH could have slowly deteriorated and how she seemed to have no real sense of self. But there is so much we can never know about Pauline since she died suddenly, 10 years before EMH committed suicide.
–from Wikipedia. This picture shows the relief train that was derailed at the time.
I had forgotten about the hurricane that hit the Keys in 1935, bringing the most devastation to the upper keys. The novel reminded me of how tragic this hurricane was for the islands and how EMH wrote an article about the governmental neglect of the veterans that were working on the railroad at the time.
Ms. Robuck brought the story full circle in her epilogue. Letters were how this story ended–letters between Mariella and EMH–just like the thousands of letters sent back and forth between EMH and his friends and family his entire life.