Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

336 pages
Picador, UK
ISBN-10: 1447226860
February 13, 2014

I spent last weekend reading Mrs. Hemingway. I first read the Hadley (Richardson, wife one) section in one sitting, then I read the Fife (Pauline Pfeiffer, wife two) and Martha (Gellhorn, wife three) sections in another sitting, and finally, I finished Sunday afternoon with the Mary (Welsh, wife 4) section.

Mrs. Hemingway was enjoyable to me for a number of reasons. First, I am a little obsessed with reading about the life of Ernest Hemingway, so a fictional account from the wives’ perspective was a different spin. I have relished a few other Hemingway-in-fiction works such as Welcome to Havana, Señor Hemingway and Adiós, Hemingway, along with the recent Hemingway’s Girl. I have read some others, but these are the standouts in my opinion, along with this new work. Maybe this is because these books emphasize the other characters’ viewpoints and these authors were extraordinarily creative in imagining the real and the fictional characters’ thoughts and words. Secondly, I interviewed this author, Naomi Wood, not too long ago on the blog, so I knew she was a bona fide scholar and had done extensive research. I knew she had visited a number of the locales, more than just those that are emphasized in the book, as well as the libraries containing Hemingway’s and some of his friends’ (Gerald and Sara Murphy, for example) papers. Also, Ms. Wood is young and British and her writing would bring a fresh new perspective to my Hemingway readings.

I enjoyed the Fife and Martha sessions more than the first and last wives’ sections. These were more captivating and engaging to me because I am getting weary of reading about Hadley, probably since she has been the most written about by scholars and novelists previously (due to Hemingway’s depiction of her versus Pauline in A Moveable Feast), and the Mary section is sad since you know what’s coming. Hadley, from the biographies and letters, seemed like such a lovely person. I enjoyed reading her story in The Paris Wife. In Mrs. Hemingway, however, I am again frustrated with her because she never fought very hard for her marriage and Ms. Wood depicts this perfectly. Maybe she just wanted out and decided to cut her losses early. Maybe she knew Hemingway was never going to be the kind of husband she wanted. She must have been absolutely fatigued from keeping up such a facade with rival Pauline. She and Pauline did remain friends and Ms. Wood portrays this in Mrs. Hemingway. What is really ironic, and Ms. Wood lets her readers know, is that after Hadley and Hemingway were divorced, she became part of someone else’s marriage. This man and his wife were living a marriage of convenience and she had the wife’s blessing to start a relationship with her husband, but it is interesting after all Hadley had experienced with Pauline. After his divorce 5 years after they met, Hadley married journalist Paul Mowrer. Fortunately, this marriage was a good match and Hadley lived a happy life.

I also looked forward to reading about how each relationship ended and why. What would another author imagine happened regarding Hemingway and how he transitioned from locales, wives, and major works, always with the next wife waiting in the wings? Ms. Wood does a commendable job showing what might have happened in each case, with reflection from Mary after his death. Ms. Wood abided by her premise of writing about the wives more than anyone else, so if you are looking for the viewpoint of vast numbers of friends, other relatives, children, or employees, there is little or nothing from them. Also, each wife is the main character of her section and not Hemingway. Again, the book is entitled Mrs. Hemingway, and it is from their perspectives on how the relationships end. Since Hemingway chose not live by himself unmarried for any extensive time from the first time he was first married until his death, who knows if he would have been as successful and productive as he was without constantly having a wife to bolster him emotionally, and in the case of Pauline Pfeiffer, financially. These particular women were smart, strong women who definitely helped Hemingway rather than hinder him.

My favorite section in Mrs. Hemingway was the Martha section. Ms. Wood depicts how Martha truly loved Hemingway, but knew it was hopeless in the end. I admired Martha’s independence and her work ethic. I thought Ms. Wood was her creative best in this section of her book. So much irony regarding Martha and Hemingway exists. Here Martha Gellhorn is in a book entitled Mrs. Hemingway, when she really wanted not to be known and remembered as one of the wives. I also wonder what Hemingway was thinking when he married a journalist that wanted to remain a journalist and did not want children and had no interest in being a traditional wife. How could they not end up being competitive? Martha Gellhorn is the one wife that would probably be known today for her work alone if she and Ernest never got married. I thought Ms. Wood’s writing captured Martha and her frustration as Mrs. Hemingway superbly.
You have to remember that Mrs. Hemingway is a work of fiction. This is one author’s creativity at work, imagining and spinning the tale of how the relationships were as they ended and I think Ms. Wood does a splendid job. No one can know for sure what transpired between all the characters except from what is left in the written records, especially the letters. However, even letters can be misinterpreted. Also, Hemingway fictionalized many real life events that it is impossible to know what he intended and what really happened at times. I just enjoy his stories, and enjoy other people’s stories about what might have been regarding him and his stories. I also appreciate how Ms. Wood sticks to her premise of the book being about the wives, since there were other women he loved: Agnes Kurowsky, Duff Twysden, Jane Mason, Adriana Ivancich, Valerie Danby-Smith and countless friends and other infatuations throughout his life.  She does not veer off course. I was interested and charmed by Ms. Wood’s take on the stories and her writing about each of the wives. I can only recommend this book.
I do have an issue to address and it regards Sara and Gerald Murphy and their son Patrick. Patrick died from tuberculosis and Gerald was a successful artist in Paris when Patrick was diagnosed in 1929. From the moment Patrick was diagnosed, Gerald gave up his art and never painted again, as I remembered from reading Everybody Was So YoungIn this novel, however, Gerald and Sara are dining with Pauline and Ernest (and Martha Gellhorn) in the late 1930’s. Ms. Wood refers to Gerald’s art and painting at the time and that was just not happening any more. This is an excruciatingly minor issue, especially in a work of fiction, but I just have to bring it forward because Ms. Wood did not seem to get anything else much different according to this aficionado. I knew going in that this is a work of fiction to be relished and not a scholarly publication, so I don’t think this issue really matters. I always enjoy reading about the Murphys because they were so creative and stylish, and everyone seemed to flock around them when they could. Tragically, both of their sons died within a couple of years of each other. They were survived by their oldest child and daughter, Honoria, who was very fond of Hemingway and remembered his conviviality with the children in Antibes and elsewhere.

Mrs. Hemingway was released in the UK on February 13th and will be published in the US on May 27th. Since my interview, Ms. Wood’s US publicist sent me the US advanced reader’s copy, and that is what I read. I have ordered via my own hardback copy of the UK book. I like both covers but wanted a hardback of the UK one.

–author of Mrs. Hemingway, Naomi Wood

I applaud Ms. Wood and her novel because she might inspire others to know more about Hemingway and his life and his relationships. I found it fascinating to read about “the end of something” four times regarding Hemingway’s marriages. Ms. Wood’s readers might also be inspired to read more of Hemingway’s works. I intend to read Ms. Wood’s first book, The Godless Boys, soon and I look forward to any, and hopefully many, of her future writings.

  4 comments for “Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

  1. February 26, 2014 at 2:05 PM

    Great review Denise, makes me want to read more about Mr. Hemingway too. What book would you recommend I begin with?

    • February 26, 2014 at 3:19 PM

      Thank you, Rosemary! For his writings I would begin with a The Finca Vigia Edition of The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. I like his short stories written in the 20s the best. About him, I would start with The Young Hemingway by Michael Reynolds. This is the first of 5. But there are numerous biographies out there. Thanks for commenting!!

  2. February 26, 2014 at 5:46 PM

    I enjoyed your review, Denise, and have put the novel on my to-read list!

    • February 26, 2014 at 7:02 PM

      I am so glad, Gabriele. I was too excited about it to wait for the US publication!

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