I’ve never read any books by Ernest Hemingway, or anything about him, but I was interested in this book ever since it came out. Instead of telling the story of the world famous author, it tells the story of his wives, and of the turbulent lives that they shared with Hemingway. Despite not knowing anything about Hemingway, as I said, I didn’t feel that this hampered my ability to enjoy the book, and I actually really loved it.
The book is split into four parts, each following a different wife. First is Hadley, then Pauline, Martha, then Mary. They each tell the story of their relationship with Ernest, but interestingly, from the end of their relationship. In most of the cases, the marriage is at the brink, and the wives are either desperate to save it, or eager to let go, and in the last case, Mary tells her story from after Ernest’s death. They go back from this unhappy ending to the happy beginnings, and then go through all the ups and downs of their relationships. I loved this from of telling events with hindsight of how the relationship would turn out in the end, and how the later events of a relationship influence the memories that the women have of earlier events. This was made even more interesting by the fact that there are overlaps in the relationships, as Ernest Hemingway often left one wife with the other waiting in the sidelines. What this means is that you often read the same event twice, whether it’s a dinner party, or a holiday, but through the eyes of the wife first, then the next wife, who was at the time the mistress, second.
There are many references to genuine primary documents in this novel, as Wood used references to real love letters and telegrams, which makes this all feel so much more substantial. I felt like I really was talking to the women in person, and you could feel their joy, anger, bitterness, or sadness. Although the four sections are not particularly long (about 80 pages), I felt like I really got to know the four different wives and their emotions, their hopes and their regrets. This was helped by the fact that the prose is simple, but still gets across what they feel strongly, so the novel never dragged on. Further, you get to see Ernest Hemingway from four different angles. Instead of Ernest Hemingway feeling like a substantial person that I had gotten to know however, Wood makes him stay a sort of enigma, as if neither wife really knew him fully or could ever hold onto him tight enough to make him stay. With each wife, he changes a little, and so you end up feeling the same desperation and confusion as the wives do.
I don’t read a lot of adult or historical fiction, but occasionally, when novels from these genres catch my eye, they are for a reason. I knew that I would enjoy this storytelling from the point of view of women who are typically not as well remembered as the man they loved. Instead of this being about Ernest, through his wives’ eyes, it was about the wives, and I loved the complete focus on their inner lives and emotions.