Mrs. Hemingway, by Naomi Wood (Penguin Books) is subtitled “a novel” to clarify from the get-go that this is a work of fiction; nevertheless, it rings true.
The story is told through the minds of Ernest Hemingway’s wives, Hadley, Fife, Martha, and Mary, and these four voices are clear, identifiable, and sympathetic. So is that scoundrel, Ernest. The time line was difficult to manage, and perhaps having small chapters with dates on them was not such an accomplished method, but at least readers knew where they were at all times, though sometimes I had to go back and remind myself. The novelistic skill needed to convey this mutating story was considerable, and I admire Naomi Wood for taking it on.
I realized by the end why Hemingway was in Cuba, Key West, Paris, Spain, and London. I’m not so sure why he went to Idaho, but by that time, I could guess.
Wood leads us discreetly up to his suicide, and Mary’s response to it is vividly, sensitively portrayed. How interesting to learn the responses of his other wives as well, with the exception of Fife, who predeceased him. The description of Ernest alone and sad after her death was affecting. Wood suggests that Fife was the one who “really loved him”, but I’d give the other three at least an honorable mention.
The main character is alcohol. Hemingway may have changed his companions, moving no closer to figuring out the boy-girl thing than he was in his extreme youth, but his relationship to alcohol is a faithful one, maturing as he grew older. His initial appeal to both men and women, for different reasons, throbs on the page, and we watch him fade as time and events overtake him. The scars so sexy in youth are simply cause for concern in later years.
I thought of Robin Williams as I read the end of the book. Williams’s wife contends that he committed suicide not because he was depressed, but because he was losing his mind, and thus his ability to do the things which had sustained him. Hemingway is shown losing his ability to write, remember, and move. There is a case to be made for shooting yourself in the head when that happens, and this book makes it.