Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood; published June 2014 by Penguin
Genre: Historical Fiction
Opening line: “Everything, now, is done a trois.”
Mrs. Hemingway tells the story of the deaths of all four of Ernest Hemingway’s marriages. The book begins with Hadley as she silently suffers through their family’s vacation in Antibes—the vacation which she knowingly invited Ernest’s mistress, Fife, to, in the hopes that the tension would cause Ernest’s affair to break up. It has just the opposite effect; Hadley breaks, issuing an ultimatum: if Ernest and Fife can make it 100 days without seeing each other and they still want each other at the end of it, she will grant Ernest a divorce. The trial only goes about 55 days before Hadley relents and grants the divorce anyway. This is the story that is most widely known, due to the popularity of The Paris Wife.
The next section is Fife’s story. She and Ernest now live in Key West with their two sons. But Ernest is working as a reporter following the wars in Europe and he comes home with a new mistress: Martha. Fife is still hopelessly in love with Ernest—in fact, she will swear her entire life that she is the one woman who loved him the most. She fights to keep him, but in the end she reluctantly grants the divorce.
Martha is a war reporter like Ernest, and their relationship has all of the urgency of two people who know at any moment they might die. But after they get married and move to La Finca Vigia, their house in Cuba, Ernest wants to settle into happy domestic life, and Martha misses the action and excitement of Europe. Martha goes back to Europe during WWII and breaks it off with Ernest, having met the next woman who will take care of him: Mary.
Mary, like Martha, is a reporter when she meets Ernest. She gives up her job to live with him until his death. Her marriage with Ernest is probably the most peaceful, but through it Ernest’s fear and paranoia grows. He eventually commits suicide, just like his own father.
If you liked The Paris Wife, you should definitely read this book. It’s a fascinating look at Ernest Hemingway’s life, through the eyes of his wives. What struck me in Naomi Wood’s retelling was how committed they all were to protecting Ernest. Although they had reason to hate each other, they found they were bound together in one goal: proper care and feeding of Ernest. Each subsequent wife relied on the help and advice of his previous wives to help her navigate a turbulent life with Ernest.
And that was one thing I didn’t understand throughout the book: Ernest Hemingway’s attraction. Apparently he was very handsome when he was young—and he was brilliant, to be sure. Maybe that was enough? But as he grew older, he had a reputation for drinking, rowdiness, and promiscuity. By the time he met Mary, his body had lost its athleticism and good looks. Every wife was well aware of his domestic situations, and yet she willingly volunteered to try out being Mrs. Hemingway. I don’t think Naomi Wood ever really articulated what it was about Ernest that attracted them. And maybe we’ll never know.
On the whole, though, I found the book very fascinating, if a little sad. Each section only covers the end of the marriage (and usually also the beginning of the affair with his next wife). We didn’t get to see the happy times Ernest and his wives had.
Recommend? Sure. If you like Hemingway and/or The Paris Wife, you’ll like this one.
You might also like:
The Paris Wife by Paula McClain
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin