Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Shelf Esteem: Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood
Shelf Esteem: 4/5


I sank into this book like the best kind of bath. GOD it's just bloody good writing. From the off you know you're in confident storytelling hands that can dash off an excellent turn of phrase while making characters feel real, and real people feel like characters rather than their Wikipedia entry.

Mrs Hemingway is a status: really, she is four women, each appallingly overlapped by the next as Ernest Hemingway falls in love and moves on. There's first wife Hadley, eight years older than Ernest and convinced she'll be a spinster until they fall in love at a party. She is with Ernest through his poverty-stricken years in Paris until she gives way to the vibrant flapper Fife - also her best friend, the cow - who in turned is ousted by the irresistibly nonchalant journalist Martha, before she can't stand him anymore and leaves him to the cares of his latest mistress, Mary.

I can't stand infidelity. It makes everything in me bristly with fury - and I mean bristly. It's as though there's a coating of piggy animal hatred. No time for it. Wood's genius is to make you entirely sympathetic to the wife whose POV you are reading at the time, even if mere paragraphs before you have been aching with the high, taut sense of betrayal at her actions. Her other stroke of brilliance is to make Ernest a backing character, while still entirely fleshed out. I can practically see him, and hear him and get a sense of him wandering about over the years, ageing and getting more insecure as he gets more successful. And amazingly enough, despite his appalling Panini attitude to collecting wives, I like him to a point.

Wood clearly likes him too, if not approves of him. There is genuine affection for the Hemingway clan throughout - his wives, obviously, more so. The only snag I found was when things got too on the nose. "It felt that they all should love as long as Ernest, that they were all needed, somehow, to bear witness," Mary thinks later on. I wriggled a bit at that line, as though the actors I was so enjoying had turned to the audience and asked us for our opinion.

From partying with the golden Fitzgeralds in Antibes to freed Paris and the lush hideaway home Finca in Cuba, Wood takes us on the most gorgeous journey from the 20s to the 60s with four pretty extraordinary women en route. Novels? What novels.

7 comments:

  1. Have you also read The Paris Wife, Kat? It's the fictionalised version of Hadley's life, and hugely readable. I'd be really interested to know how the portrayal of her and Pauline (and, go on, Ernest) between the two novels.

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    1. I haven't! It was listed in the bibliography at the back - so many amazing-sounding reads there. Poor Fife. And I never thought I'd say that..

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  2. Oh this sounds really good. I'm building up such a long 'to read' list on my ereader that it's making me jittery.

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    1. Me too! I'm now in an absolute bind about what to read next: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, or - damn, what WAS that book I was looking at last night? Massively unhelpful brain, thanks for that.

      Something I forgot to mention above was how brilliantly the cover photo reflects an early scene. Whoever found it should get a prize.

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    2. I'm reading Lace next, which sounds so fabulously 80s trashy. And it'll be the perfect antidote to spies in post-war London.

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    3. Lace! Utterly marvellous. Can I recommend Judith Krantz's Scandal as a follow-up? It involves a) shopping b) millionaires c) a lot of makeover montages d) more shopping e) a LOT of ridiculous fabulousness

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    4. YES. I love all of those things.

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