BY NAOMI WOOD
This was a vivid and engrossing work of imagination based on the tremendous stories of Ernest Hemingway and his four wives. Beautifully written and researched and full of gossipy details, I just could not put this book down. The locations are dazzling – jazz age Paris, post-war Cuba, 1930s Florida – as are the characters that inhabited those places and times.
Hadley was the first Mrs Hemingway who loses the great writer to Vogue reporter Fife “over a year in Paris in which his wife slowly bowed out.” But neither of them are the last Mrs Hemingway – they are followed by war reporter Martha Gellhorn and finally his widow, Mary Welsh.
In his memoir A Moveable Feast Hem writes of Hadley; “I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” And despite the three wives he loved passionately after, Hadley did seem the truest of his loves. More than an infatuation, or another writer or an editor or partying playmate.
“What a pull he has! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars,” says Fife in this novel. Certainly, I would say she had Ernest’s best years and fought the hardest to keep him. It’s a gorgeous line that Wood writes to show how Fife’s passion for Ernest felt like the tangy green olive she eats “she wants to have him all the way down to the stone.”
Then came Wife No.3, Martha, a gutsy journalist and writer. They are obsessed with one another but find that their happiness fades when they are away from the excitement and peril of war. A stronger, more independent woman, she thought herself “different from the rest of those women. Those lapdog wives.”
With Mary there were good times, like when they stayed at the Paris Ritz until they had “drunk the place dry.” But arguably Mary had some of his darkest days. The years when he wasn’t the urgent young writer. The day he blew his head off with his hunting gun (an accident or not?)
They all shared their own special love affairs with the great Hem, a man who could not be alone. He could be charming and wonderful to them, he could be ugly and cruel and each of them knew when their time was up and his head had been turned by another. But these weren’t downtrodden women, indeed they all seemed to keep in touch by post and telephone with one another right up until his death. The betrayals and the intimate moments shared by Hem and the four wives are heartbreakingly imagined by Wood.
Fret not though, there is equally as much partying, decadence and exotic living here too. “Fife sits in the garden with a newspaper and a martini,” paints a succinct portrait of his glamorous second wife. I also loved how her Florida home was brought to life by our author; “a breeze comes into the house from the Gulf carrying in the scent of tamarind, frangipani and banana.” An exquisite passage from an exquisitely told story. This is going on the favourites shelf after I’ve passed it round a few friends of mine I know to be admirers of old Papa Hem. Fabulous!
SOUTHSEA BOOKWORM RATING: 10/10
Notes on the author – Naomi Wood:
- Received funding to research this book as a Writer in Residence (2012) at the British Library
- Her research took her to Hemingway’s homes and old haunts including Chicago, Paris, Antibes, Key West and Cuba
- She lives in London