Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

I have three historical periods and the writers of that era that I'm somewhat obsessed with. One is the explosion of writers (mostly gay men) who wrote in the aftermath of WWII. This includes Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams, only to name a few. The second is the mostly British expat community in Kenya in the 1920s and 30s, Isak Dinesen the obvious draw there. And the third is the ex-pat community of writers in Paris in the 1920s, of whom Fitzgerald and Hemingway loom the largest.

So I'm writing this review with something of a caveat because I know the personal history of Hemingway extremely well (it's a little embarrassing how many biographies I own of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their circle) and mentally I could be filling in gaps. Another reader might feel that parts of this book feel thin or there isn't enough, but all readers bring their own history to the page--we can't help that. Thus, I felt it only fair to start this review with that warning.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood presents the POV of the four Hemingway wives as their marriages to him begin to disintegrate. All four POVs--from Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pffeiffer, Martha Gellhorn to Mary Welsh--have a distinct voice. If you're interested in the history of this period, this is not that book, but its character study of each woman is excellent. The greatest strength of this book is a seamless back and forth between the ending of their marriages and all the unfortunate emotional history leading to the end of their marriages. This back and forth is exceptionally hard to do without giving a reader mental whiplash, and I think that Ms. Wood does an admirable job of weaving in various episodes. The language is lush and descriptive, and on nearly every page there was a sentence that I would read and say to myself, wow I wish I'd written that.

Hemingway was something of a serial husband. He always had a woman waiting in the wings before he disposed of the previous wife, so these stories all overlap. I think the weakest "wife" in the book is Ms. Wood's portrayal of Martha Gellhorn, but then she would, IMO, be the hardest to mentally coral. A war correspondent in her own right, Martha Gellhorn was the only one of his wives who didn't have a somewhat synchophantic relationship with her husband. And, naturally, she's the only one who left him.

By and large the book seems historically factual to a point. The section where the most liberties have been taken are with Martha Gellhorn (wife no. 3). Based on the several biographies of hers that I've read, an extended scene that takes place at the end of their marriage never occurred, but other than that, it reads as historically accurate to me. But the history here isn't the point.

What is the point is the evocative language, the deft handling of four distinct voices, and the masterful weaving in and out of their respective histories. This was a wonderful read.

If you're interested in a more historical and in-depth treatment of Hemingway's wives, I highly recommend Bernice Kert's The Hemingway Women. This is a superb history on the various women who loomed large in Hemingway's life. I can't recommend this book more highly.

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LINKS

Debris and Detritus (available in trade paperback and ebook formats).

Pen and Prejudice (available in trade paperback and ebook formats).

Roux Morgue (available in hard cover, trade paperback, audio, and ebook formats)

Beat Until Stiff (available in trade paperback, audio, and ebook formats)

Poisoned Pen Press

Mystery Writers of America

Sisters in Crime Northern California Chapter

Independent American Booksellers Association

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