It’s never a good sign if I struggle to write a post for a book. It’s indicative of the worst a book can be: mediocre. I can thoroughly enjoy working up a good indignant froth for several hundred words (see Run Rabbit) and, naturally, waxing lyrical about favourites, but there’s nothing worse than the a middle-of-the-road, it-was-ok, there-are-points-in-its-favour read.
Mrs Hemingway, a book focussing on the 4 wives of writer Ernest Hemingway, was just such a middle ground. I was eager to start it: it wasn’t (mainly) about war or death or disability, which has to be a plus. I could, I thought, just about handle a book with a little F Scott Fitzgerald name dropping, a few daiquiris in Havana, and a bit of deep sea fishing. Especially all of the above given a pleasing twist of feminism.
And it certainly was an easy read. Author Naomi Wood comfortably takes on the cultural giant that is Ernest Hemingway, a writer more written about than read these days according to one article I read recently. He’s a dream for fictional treatment: talented, tortured, churning through wives and lovers whilst bizarrely retaining a faith in marriage, trotting around the globe dipping into major cultural milestones like 1920s Paris and the second World War. She easily weaves factual source material with fiction in a way that makes the boundary entirely invisible. She hops lightly between time periods and the novel bears quite a complicated chronological structure – end of marriage 1 to end of marriage 2 to flashback of affair during marriage 1 to beginning of marriage 2 and so on – without it becoming confusing.
But despite all of this deft treatment, I can’t deny that I found it a little… vapid. A little limp. A twinkling splashing on the surface. The women are strong, convincing and distinct, but I suspect the problem is that the uniting figure of Hemingway remains fundamentally slippery. I had to stretch my imagination to justify why these different women all fall for him despite his phalanx of issues: primarily philandering and drinking, but occasionally straying darker into emotional and even physical abuse. The novel does not attempt to answer Hemingway’s psychological demons or even to fully understand them, which no doubt reflects the wives’ perspectives. Apparently, Hemingway proposed the ‘iceberg’ theory of fiction in which 9/10ths of any story should be implied, out of sight, not directly presented, and this unknowability is all centred around him as a character here… but, perhaps as Wood is understandably not Hemingway, it leaves an unsatisfying void rather than a fascinating chasm from which the reader gets intriguing sparkles of light. What is the progressive effect of his father’s suicide on him? Why does he insist on repeated marriages despite their repeated failure? What does writing offer him psychologically? Why all the booze? Why such different women?
Wood tries to keep up the momentum throughout, a tough call given the glitzy, flappery, 1920s Parisian start, and it arguably achieves this by moving into more emotionally moving territory of Mary, wife 4’s, handling of her grief after his death. But despite this, and many other technical successes, Mrs Hemingway ultimately failed to grab me and perhaps most markedly, didn’t remotely prompt me to return to Hemingway’s works (despite A Farewell to Arms being a magnificent novel that made me weep and weep.) An addition to, rather than necessarily a major enrichment of, the cultural world around Hemingway – but certainly sound and lightly enjoyable.