I started to read this book and abandoned it after 20 pages. It was too well crafted, too tense, too good. I didn’t want to waste it in drips and drops of paragraphs, squeezed into tube journeys’, or a few more pages wrung out before I fell asleep at night. I wanted to savour it, luxuriate in it like a warm bubble bath. So I fought the temptation to pick it up, and waited till I boarded a Eurostar bound for Paris. For a novel based on the four wives of Ernest Hemingway, whose lives often wove through Paris, this seemed perfect.
And it was worth the wait. Split into four parts, one for each of Hemingway’s wives, this story is skilfully executed. It took until Martha, the third wife, before I realised Ernest was little more than a bit part character. Though the wives’ thoughts, memories and actions revolved around their feelings for him, he rarely appeared in person in the text. Wood has performed a clever magic trick: the machismo, the allure, the cruelty, and the career of Hemingway are here in the pages, but she has given full voice and focus to the women in his life, elevating them beyond the unique club they found themselves in by romantic association. She has made them whole, they are not simply the ‘wife of’. Not simply Mrs. Hemingway.
An enticing, passionate, and at times heart-wrenching read, Wood maps not only the intricacies of each couple’s relationship, but the increasingly destructive relationship Hemingway has with alcohol. Each wife’s cocktail hour starts earlier than the last. As patterns and echoes of past behaviours emerge through the lives of the women, so too do they resound through Hemingway, charting his descent into depression. Devastating.
This book haunts me, pleasingly, like an ex-wife hovering in the background.
Mrs Hemingway, Naomi Wood: Raise a glass of Papa Doble 5/5