Book Review: Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

The life and wives of Ernest Hemingway have long been a subject of fascination for literary types, and they have proved popular fodder for novels in recent years. I enjoyed Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, which tells the story of Hemingway’s first wife Hadley, so I was intrigued to see really positive reviews of Mrs. Hemingway, a novel that is narrated by each of his four wives in turn — Hadley, Fife, Martha, and Mary. I was excited to pick up a copy at BEA, and I devoured this slim novel in a just a few sittings.

Mrs. Hemingway picks up in the summer of 1926, when Ernest and Hadley are vacationing in the south of France. But they’re not alone — lodging with them and their young son Bumby is the glamorous Fife, Hadley’s best friend and Ernest’s lover. Hadley narrates the disintegration of her marriage, looking back on her relationship as it falls apart.

The novel is broken into four sections, each bearing one of Hemingway’s wives’ names as the title. The narrative for each wife picks up as her marriage with Ernest coming to a close, and each woman tells the story of her own relationship. As some of his relationships started out as affairs while he was married to a previous wife, there is some really interesting overlap in their stories; we get to read about Hadley’s despair as she loses her husband to Fife, and we also get to see Fife’s perspective as she betrays her friend.

Wood has clearly done her research, and she brings Hadley, Fife, Martha, and Mary to life, making them vibrant individuals with very different relationships to Hemingway. The novel is balanced really well, giving equal time to the stories of each woman. If Wood has a favorite wife, it doesn’t come acress; each of them is treated fairly and compassionately, and they each have a compelling voice. They also give the reader a different understanding of the Hemingway, as he/she reads about the man from the perspectives of his wives. We see what attracted him to each of them, and also why their marriages failed, painting a rich portrait of a complicated man.

I highly recommend this book to readers who are interested in the life of Ernest Hemingway and the women he loved. It’s particularly fun to read as a companion to other novelizations of the same topic. Although this book is excellent on its own, having read The Paris Wife a few months earlier made this book an even richer experience for me. It’s definitely a book I will be encouraging Jazz Age January participants to read this year!

Have you read any novels based on historical figures — Hemingway, or others?

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

  1. I must be the only person who didn’t love this book. I liked it, but that’s it. It would make a great Jazz Age pick, but I have to admit that I was sometimes bored. Is that because I’d already read The Paris Wife? Or that I couldn’t find enough that was redeeming about Ernest for all these very intelligent women to fall head over heals for him?

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