Book Review: Mrs. Hemingway

Thursday 5 March 2015 by

Mrs. Hemingway, Book, Naomi Wood, PicadorMrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Published by Picador

In the dazzling summer of 1926, Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley travel from their home in Paris to a villa in the south of France. They swim, play bridge and drink gin. But wherever they go they are accompanied by the glamorous and irrepressible Fife. Fife is Hadley’s best friend. She is also Ernest’s lover…

Hadley in the first Mrs. Hemingway, but neither she nor Fife will be the last. Over the ensuing decades, as each marriage is ignited by passion and deceit, four extraordinary women will learn what it means to love – and lose – the most famous writer of his generation.


I am an enormous Hemingway fan. His clean, sharp writing is a pure joy to read, and his stories are captivating no matter how many times you read them. But his personal life was less than tidy, and Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemingway goes some way to showing that.

Written in four sections (one for each wife), each section is divided between the beginning of the marriage and the end. We start with Hadley, the quiet and simple first wife, who is the first to suffer from Hemingway’s infidelities, but certainly isn’t the last. In an attempt to rescue her marriage, she invites Fife on holiday with them, knowing full well that Fife is her husband’s mistress.

Throughout the book, we travel from Paris to Cuba to Key West and London, through the glamorous Twenties with the Fitzgerald’s and the newly liberated Paris. Although the story is told from the point of view of each wife, it is Hemingway that is inevitably the starring role in the book, as he looms large in each scene.

It is strange to think that someone who drank and cheated his way through life could come out as a wonderful character, but the charisma that charms his wives oozes through the pages. You never fall out of love with any of them, from the moment he leaves his first wife to the moment his last wife finds him dead. Each wife brings their own character, their own story to the overall thread, each one so different from the last.

Hadley is meek, in many ways, where Fife is tempestuous. Martha is fiery and independent, whilst Mary is staid and placid. Each wife seems to reflect Hemingway’s mood of the time, and perhaps that was part of their attraction.

Wood is a great writer, never letting whimsy take over, but rather telling the story in Hemingway-esque prose. Under no illusion that this is biographical (although she certainly did her research), there is something authoritative about it that makes you feel like it is. I fell more and more in love with Hemingway (his own writing taking a background spot, which was refreshing), and increasingly in love with the wives. This unconventional quartet are as much a part of each other’s lives as they are Hemingway’s, and it makes for a neat story. There are no gaping plot holes, no loose ends, this is as refined as a Hemingway story and refreshing as a Kate Atkinson masterpiece (it reminded me increasingly of Life After Life).

It urges you to read on, to read more, to read widely. I want to grasp at all I can to discover more about these wives – their own writings, memoirs and biographies. It makes me want to read more Hemingway, to pore over each story to catch glimpses of the wife between the lines. This book will make you think differently about those brief, mysterious dedications at the beginning of books – who is this person that is so important they need a whole book written for them? Hemingway’s wives were that important, and it is in his books that you find evidence of them on each page. They are as much as part of Hemingway as his prose. And it is through Wood’s artful writing that you discover them, hidden there on the wings, as the great writer takes the stage.

It took all my power not to pick up an Ernest Hemingway for my next read. Wood invites you in to their world, and you never want to leave. This book charms you as much as its subject charmed his wives.

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