Mrs. Hemmingway by Naomi Wood
Penguin Group, 2014; 317 pp
Reviewed by Winnie Khaw
Throughout his life, Ernest Hemmingway keeps “an album ... a book of wives. In each picture of each couple a ghost wife hovers behind them (316).” Naomi Wood’s title, Mrs. Hemmingway, is quite a clever joke played on the uninitiated reader--it has a ring of finality, a connotation of singularity. However, the honorable, coveted, and rather undesirable designation of Mrs. Hemmingway belongs to four women, among other extramarital affairs. The reader catches only glimpses of the legendary author and wandering husband, first through the perspective of Hadley Richardson, then Pauline Pfeiffer, third, Martha Gelhorn, and lastly, Mary Welsh. Hemmingway himself appears oddly unaffected by his marriages to the great loves of his life.
We observe Hemmingway’s optimism and youthful bloom sink into defeated dissipation, but are given no insight into why such a change occurs, perhaps because none of his wives truly recognize the causes, either. Or, the reasons for the transformation are too clear to acknowledge: excessive drinking, an indulgent lifestyle, general sloth of personality, and simply advancing age gradually creep up on Hemmingway. Yet, why? Yes, a multiplicity of factors drive Hemmingway to presumably kill himself, but what motivates the man himself? At one point Fife finds him “looking at the page with so much sadness he might have been staring at his father’s dead face (115).” We as readers know only so much as can be surmised from his wives’ narrations, but none of the women really examine their husband or the reasons for his leaving them.
Hemmingway presciently refers to those around him, the Lost Generation, as “cursed (117).” Historically, his observation appears well-founded, yet the characters who populate the story are depicted with unsympathetic shallowness and mere bare hints of deeper interest. I discover myself wondering if, beyond their neuroses and tics, real-life friends such as Zelda and Scott have any substance at all.
One could say that Hadley, Hemmingway’s first wife, possesses a quiet courage and faces the disintegration of her marriage with resolution, or as I think, she comes across as rather insipid and spiritless. This unfortunate character impression may be made with intention by Wood, but it is far more probable that she means to show, in each of the sections, a multifaceted view of Hemmingway’s wives instead of closing them into generic cubbyholes. Fife, according to Hemmingway, is “the devil.” Why? Because she loves him to obsession. Martha tells Hemmingway outright that she “[doesn’t] think marriage would be good for [her] (198)” and ends their union by leaving him. Mary, like the rest, is left behind, but without the solace of keeping friendly relations with him, knowing he is alive and, of course, married.
An intriguing note possibly irrelevant to the story except to demonstrate Hemmingway’s intimacy with each of his wives at the time of marriage: every character has a pet nickname. Nesto for Ernest, Hash for Hadley, Fife for Pfieffer, Marty for Martha, Rabbit for Mary.
Early in the novel Hadley muses that “she always thought herself lucky, since it was she among [women] who could call herself Mrs. Hemmingway (35).” This is the ultimate ironic line and probably the most incisive, tucked innocuously away in a paragraph otherwise unnoticeable. And so the novel Mrs. Hemmingway seems to me: a few impressive gem-like phrases hidden within passages that in most other respects, despite the gentleness of Hadley,the desperation of Fife, the carelessness of Martha, and the disbelieving sorrow of Mary, read like a pleasantly flowing narrative void of real feeling or thoughtful penetration.