Posted on 9th July 2014

By The Ickenham Library Reading Group

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Mrs. Hemingway

Naomi Wood

In 2014, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize worked with the Regional Literature Development Agencies to find reading groups across the UK to read the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning titles.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood was read by the Ickenham Reading Group from Middlesex and below are reviews from its reading group members. 

1. Samantha Everett: 5 stars, Excellent read & I would highly recommend it.

I’ve heard of Ernest Hemingway – who hasn’t – he is one of the greatest writers of our time, however, I will rather shamefully admit that I have never read a single one of his novels or short stories. I also didn’t know very much about him as a man. All that changed the moment I opened Naomi Wood’s book ‘Mrs. Hemingway‘.

You are immediately thrown into the dying days of Hemingway’s first marriage, set against the backdrop of 1920s France. I fell in love with Wood’s writing style from the first few pages, as we begin to explore what is happening between the threesome of Hemingway, his wife Hadley and her close friend Fife:

‘Lying next to him she wonders how it is she has lost him, although perhaps that is not quite the right phrase, since she has not lost him, not yet. Rather Fife and Hadley wait and watch as if they are lining up for the last seat on a bus’

Wood gives us a look at each of Hemingway’s wives, in turn showing us how Hemingway could never be alone, capturing a rather childlike quality about Ernest and in turn we are given a small glimpse at the pain and destruction loving him caused. After reading his first wife Hadley’s section in the book I found my heart breaking just a little bit for this woman who loves her husband so much she lets him go and imagine the pain of everyone knowing what has been going on behind her back. I also found myself simply hating Fife and the heartache she caused. However as the story moves forward and we meet Martha and Mary, as well as learning more about Fife I realise that my heart breaks a little for all of them. These were real women whose only mistake seemed to be loving Ernest Hemingway a little too much.

At least in Antibes, there were three of them, Hadley had her, Fife has no-one.’

The book takes us from France to Key West in the 1930s, back to France during the Second World War and then finishes in Idaho in the 1960s. I found myself swept along with each wife’s story and fascinated by the draw that Hemingway had on these women and females in general. I love how Wood explores the friendships that Hemingway’s wives had right up to and beyond his death.

‘Apparently Hadley and Fife are even pals still: by Ernest’s accounts his two ex-wives chat regularly on the telephone, talking of children and the proper care of Ernest. Martha & Fife have never spoken since that vacation in Key West. Why would they? She has proper respect for the rules of this game.’

As the book progresses we move from the glitz and glamour of Antibes and Wood explores the darker side of Hemingway, dropping little pieces of information into the story around his father, his drinking and other things that led to Hemingway ending his own life.

I have really found it hard to put into words how much I love this book. I found it beautifully written and the author set a perfect pace that made me want to carry on reading as Hemingway’s marriage to each wife unravelled. I loved how Wood was able to show us a great depth to her characters and how each wife’s section was written in a way that helped that wife’s personality shine through. The book was evocative of the times in which it was set and through the beautiful descriptions I immediately felt transported. I finished Mrs. Hemingway wanting more and will now be devouring the author’s suggested reading list to learn more about Hemingway and his wives. At the end of the book I was left wondering which wife I would have most liked to of been, Hadley who seemed to remain Ernest’s one true love, Fife who loved the man enough to let him go and never seemed to really get over him, Martha, the ballsy female war reporter or Mary who remained his wife until the very end. They were all such wonderful women brought to life through Wood’s wonderful & captivating writing, but I can honestly say that being a Mrs. Hemingway wouldn’t have been for me.

2. M. Dorigan: 4 stars, good, would recommend

Many years have elapsed since I’ve read any of Ernest Hemingway’s books and I knew very little about the man himself, apart from his bohemian lifestyle of course. The title ‘Mrs. Hemingway’ is a clever one as there were no less than four wives (Hadley, Fife, Martha & Mary), each one a mistress first. Through each wife’s story we jump backwards and forwards in time over four decades, from France in the 1920s, to Cuba, Key West and then Idaho in the 1960s.

Although a work of fiction, this book is clearly based on a great deal of research and is well written. The author conveys a sense of time, place and atmosphere, whether the bohemian 20’s or wartime France.

Overall, this was an interesting read though I felt little empathy or sympathy for any of the ‘wives’. Each ‘wife’ was very different in character but perhaps typical of her class and era. It took me till Martha, the third ‘wife’ to really get into the book as I found her the most interesting character. As a result of reading this book, I now intend to dust off my copy of ‘The Old Man and The Sea!’ I will re-read it with a greater knowledge of Ernest Hemingway, author and man.

3. Good, 4 stars, would highly recommend the book

Very readable. An insight into the different characters of the four wives and the eras in which they were involved with Hemingway. I was still left wondering what it was that drew women to him and why he continued to seek marriage. Written with feeling and quite poignant at times. Interesting chronology- just covering the overlapping periods between wives. Perhaps that is why we are left with unanswered questions.

4. Excellent, 5 stars, would highly recommend the book 

Very readable. The author draws the reader in with her characters and makes you want to keep reading until each wife’s story is complete. A sympathetic treatment of Mr Hemingway whilst still revealing his flaws. Shows changing attitudes to women and marriage before and after the Second World War.

5. Good, 4 stars, would recommend the book

It provides an interesting view of Hemingway through his treatment and interactions with his wives and also his friends and colleagues. This perspective is not always comfortable as his shoddy behaviour does not sit well with some of the topics his books covered so well, particularly the war in Spain. He is admirable for his writing, but not for how he lived his life. This is clearly conveyed by Naomi Wood in this well researched book. While not particularly pleasant, it was good to meet the man behind the wonderful writing and the partners that helped him achieve so much. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity and the characters are vivid.

6. Average, 3 stars, would recommend to someone who is interested in Ernest Hemingway

Mrs. Hemingway is in fact a fictional story of four Mrs Hemingways and their relationship with the famous writer Ernest. In flashbacks it describes their louche and egotistical life in America, Cuba and Europe before during and after the Second World War when Ernest was a journalist and writer. The writing style is elegant but I could not connect with any of the characters and the ‘flashback’ style of writing is not one that I like. It is too easy to lose track of time. I was very pleased to have read the book to find out a bit more about this iconic writer, but I cannot say I enjoyed it.

7. Average, 3 stars

The story documents the life of Ernest Hemingway through the eyes of his four wives. It paints a vivid picture of Hemingway- a selfish, childish, self-obsessed “pig of a man”. I found myself disliking Hemingway intensely, from the very first chapter. He used people, thinking only of how their behaviour would affect his life. He craved praise from the world, especially critics. He was definitely an alcoholic and someone who had to be the centre of attention, even in war and post war situations. He also suffered from depression. However, it seems that he was greatly loved, by all his wives and most of his friends and acquaintances. The book did not really give any insight as to why this was the case. Virtually everyone admired him and made excuses for his often-appalling behaviour. The book paints a picture of the lifestyle of the characters in the 1920s and 30s. The wealthy seem to cruise through life, drinking and holding parties. They too appeared to be very selfish and vain creatures. The book jumps around in time, which I think is a good thing, giving the reader a chance to see the good times of the various marriages, interspersed with the bad times. I did sometimes not look too closely at the chapter headings and dates, which left me a little muddled on one or two occasions.

Summing up – Love is a very strange emotion!

I have never been able to finish a Hemingway book – I do particularly like his style of writing. The character portrayed in Mrs. Hemingway does give me some justification for this dislike. However it made me want to find out a little more about his life and read a Hemingway novel again.

Read more about our reading group projects here.

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