Literary Wives: Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

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Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

18114165Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Mrs. Hemingway begins in 1926 Paris, when Ernest is still married to Hadley, but has already set his sights on Fife. The narrative goes back and forth from the end of their marriage to when they first met and fell in love. The book goes on in this same style to tell the story of all four wives of Ernest Hemingway.

I was excited to read this book. I haven’t read a lot about the Hemingways even though there have been a plethora of books out about them – and many people seem to love them. But I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed in the book. It felt repetitive to me (which isn’t surprising considering the material the author is working with), and I became impatient with it, hoping the agony of watching the wives fall in love with such a problematic man would soon be over. However, it was interesting from the perspective of a Literary Wife.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

The four wives in this book all have one thing in common – Ernest Hemingway. So, let’s start there.

Ernest: From what I read in the book, Ernest sounds like a mentally ill man trying to get through life the best he can. He had four wives, but he also had many affairs in addition to his wives. He seemed to be just as addicted to the ‘high’ of new love as he was to alcohol. The amazing thing about him is that, despite his faults (and by the end they were blaringly obvious), women seemed to love him.

What a pull he has! What magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

Hadley: Being his first wife, Hadley was the least likely of them all to see what was coming. She did put up with the short affairs, but his obsession with Fife threw her. The friendship between the two women made the situation all the more strange. Hadley seems sad to see their marriage go, but is not willing to prolong the “game” any longer. She no longer wants to be comparing herself to Fife, and wondering when/if her husband will ever come back to her.

How effortlessly Fife charmed others – and how charmless it made her feel.

In a way, it almost seemed to me she felt a kind of relief to be moving on. Our of his four wives, she seems the most ‘traditional’; not as interested in his fame, his friends, his world travels. She just wanted to be able to hold onto her family.

If only Ernest had more sense than just to throw it all away. Hadley smiles to herself; she sounds like one of those sighing housewives in magazine stories she would never admit to Ernest she rather likes to read.

Fife: Fife feels badly about Hadley, but not badly enough. She just can’t stay away from Ernest, and he seems to feel the same way about her.

There was that rich woman’s sense of entitlement: of deserving a particular object only by virtue of desiring it, whether it was a bicycle or a Schiaparelli dress or another woman’s husband.

Out of all of his wives, Fife seems the most passionate about holding onto him. She is by his side everywhere he goes for years; accompanies him on all his trips. Even after their sons are born, she continues to believe that her place is by his side, leaving the kids at home with their caregivers.

It was as if Hadley had never felt that Ernest was hers; whereas Fife had never felt Ernest was ever anybody else’s.

Fife and Ernest had some great years, but I think Fife spent them all worrying that some day she would lose it all the same way Hadley did. And she was right.

… that’s how she felt with Ernest: adored, and elevated, but with the faintest feeling that she could, at any time, lose her footing.

Unlike Hadley, who seemed most interested in the idea of ‘family’, which is possibly what allowed her to let Ernest go when he was no longer holding up his end of the bargain, Fife just wanted Ernest. It’s harder to let go of the only thing you want.

Martha: Martha seemed the most sensible (and independent) of his wives. For a long time she refused to marry him, believing that “marriage is for women who want to stay home”. She also suspects, by his history, that it would ruin them. But he finally wore her down – “to show the world it’s us against them”, and they married.

As Ernest becomes more dedicated to the bottle, he becomes more bully-like, and we see this in his marriage to Martha. He asks her, “Are you a war correspondent or a wife in my bed?” But Martha considers herself different from his other wives (who she calls “lapdog wives”), and continues with her career at the risk of losing Ernest. She also carries on affairs of her own.

He is not so much greedy for women as blind to what he thinks he needs and so he grabs at everything. Wives and wives and wives – Ernest doesn’t need a wife; he needs a mother!

Like Hadley, and unlike Fife, Martha had an idea of something that she loved as much as she loved Ernest – her career. This made it easier for her to let him go.

Mary: By the time Mary came along I couldn’t believe that another woman could actually fall for this guy. Not only is his past a huge red flag, but he is also, at this point, a moody alcoholic. But Mary does fall for him, and becomes the first of his wives to leave another marriage for him.

This is the marriage that lasts. But Mary’s role as wife is even more of a caregiver than the other three wives. Being ‘taken care of’ seems to me to be mostly what Ernest is after.

And he seems to be attracted to women who are smart and independent – maybe as a way to ensure they’re better able to put their energy into keeping him happy. He loved to feel adored, and he “couldn’t bear being alone”. His wives had big roles to fill. And, although there did seem to be love in the equation, there didn’t seem to be an equal balance of power. The wives were often left wondering about his affairs, as well as cleaning up after his messes. They feared losing him if they left him alone. I think there were many happy moments in their lives, but it’s hard to believe that they had happy marriages; just the hope and dream of a happy marriage. Each wife thinking she’ll be the one who sticks; the one to ‘cure’ him of his philandering, depression and alcoholism.

He had once told her that love was never about the powerful and the powerless. But Fife can’t think what else might constitute a marriage.

Have you read this book? What do you think about Hemingway’s ways and his wives? Are there similar books that you would recommend?

On the first Monday in February we’ll be reading and discussing The Wife by Meg Wolitzer. You’re welcome to read along and join in the conversation!

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41 thoughts on “Literary Wives: Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

  1. FictionFan says:

    Ugh! He makes Henry VIII sound like quite a good husband! I must admit to a reluctance to find out much about great writers in general because somehow it tends to colour their work for me, but, on the basis of the one book of his that I’ve read, Hemingway treats his literary women just about as badly as his real ones anyway. It does seem strange that women continued to be attracted to him…

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, you’re right – and now I know it must be mostly about Hadley, his first wife. I think the Literary Wives read that one before I joined them, actually. If you (or anyone else) is interested, you could go check out their reviews!

  2. susanosborne55 says:

    Great review, Naomi. Obviously this is a novel but it confirmed all the prejudices I already had about Hemingway. The women, of course, are very much more interesting then him. The mystery is why they put up with his behaviour for as long as they did but, then, I’m not a woman who is attracted to self-destructive, self-absorbed men, no matter how talented!

    • Naomi says:

      That *is* the mystery. Although, it might be safe to say that because Hadley was first, she might not have known what she was getting into. And, as you say, we also have to keep in mind that it’s fiction – we can’t know everything. Which, of course, just makes me want to!

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t, either. I’ve only read The Old Man and the Sea (which I liked). But I think, for me, it’s more that I see so many mixed reviews of his books, and I figure that are better bets out there to read!

  3. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis says:

    I think I must have been clicking off my brain when I saw the title of this before. I didn’t realize that it’s about all four of Hemiongway’s wives. I may just read it now.

    I’ve reserved The Wife: it’s coming inter-library from Sydney so that could be next week or next year – ha! If I’m able (have book amd time to read it), I’d like to join in next time. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      That would be great!
      I know what you mean about the ILL – you just never know when the book will come. And then you only have 3 weeks!
      Hmm… I just realized we might be ‘fighting’ for the same book – we don’t have one at our library either! Ha! 🙂

  4. whatmeread says:

    You did a lot more thinking about the relationship with Hemingway than I did. Good job. I am glad you liked Martha, too, as I think the novel handled her a bit acidly. Of course, we mostly saw her from the point of view of the next wife, who wouldn’t usually like her anyway.

    I fear the other wives may have forgotten. I would have sent out an email reminder, but I haven’t dug up all my email addresses and moved them to this computer. Maybe I’m wrong and we’ll see their reviews later.

    • Naomi says:

      I’m just about to go read yours now. We all seem a little behind today, but there was an email from Lynn saying hers would be up later, and from Emily with apologies for having to skip this one. I haven’t heard from the others yet.
      You have a new e-mail now, don’t you?

  5. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    Isn’t it funny (sad/interesting/strange) what women will put up with in relationships? I think human beings must truly be optimists at heart, even if it turns out to bite them in the end – must be that resilience thing. This one would probably frustrate me too much to read. But you wrote a great review!

    • Naomi says:

      I did find it a little frustrating, but a lot of people have loved it. I remember wanting to read it when it first came out.
      I like your take – that his wives were optimists (rather than suckers). 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      I had heard good things, too, Karen, which was why I felt excited to read this one. It could have been my mood, or maybe the Hemingways just don’t interest me.

  6. JacquiWine says:

    This can be a tricky thing to pull off successfully, the novel featuring real people, as it’s often difficult to separate the fictional elements from reality. I suspect I would be more included to turn to a biography or memoir in this instance… Sorry to hear you found this book a bit disappointing – I’d heard good things about it too.

  7. Rebecca Foster says:

    I loved this book! Too bad you didn’t like it as much. I would definitely recommend Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (mentioned above). That one sticks with Hadley, so maybe you’d find it less repetitive.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s true. And, I think I liked her best of the wives (from the little of them that I know) – being the first, she couldn’t have known as well as the others what she was getting into.

  8. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    I don’t really like Hemingway’s writing nor the obsession with him, I hated Old Man and The Sea when I read it as a teenager at school and avoided him for years, but was talked into reading The Paris Wife and I did enjoy it, probably because it is set in France and because Hadley was interesting, but I was disappointed that the novel ended when her relationship with him ended, I wanted to hear more about her ‘happy ever after’ life with the man she subsequently married, who was nothing mike Hemingway.

    I have read this novel as well and it certainly didn’t endear me to Hemingway, I was interested in Martha’s story – finally a sensible woman who actually left him!

    • Rebecca Foster says:

      I’ve read a few books by Hemingway and definitely would not call myself a fan. However, the one book of his that I truly enjoyed was A Moveable Feast, his memoir about life in Paris.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, Martha seemed the most sensible. And, I agree, I would like to hear more about Hadley’s second marriage. I’m glad she was able to find someone better!
      I liked The Old Man and the Sea when I read it in school, but that was so long ago – I wonder what I would think of it now?

  9. The Cue Card says:

    I have liked quite a few of Hemingway’s books, but personally he seemed terrible. Maybe he treated his cats in Key West better?

  10. Grab the Lapels says:

    “…in magazine stories she would never admit to Ernest she rather likes to read.” This quote struck me as very sad because it suggests the wife thinks her literary husband, who sounds like a real shit, will judge her for reading something of which he would not approve.

    I must admit an affinity for Wife #3 based on your descriptions, Naomi! She sounds like a smart woman when she notes that he needs someone to care for him, not love him and be partners with him.

    Did you like how the wives were written? Which one was your favorite? And also, doesn’t this club ask what this book taught you about what it means to be a wife? Based on this review, I would say it’s taught me that wives can double as mothers and lovers, and that’s…creepy.

    • Naomi says:

      But wife #3 still married him – even though she knew what he was! What was it about him that made them act against their gut instincts? But, yes, Martha’s a good choice. However, I think I’d have to go with Hadley (wife #1). Based only on this fictionalized version of the wives, she *seemed* like the kindest person out of the 4 of them.
      I think a wife can be a lot of things, to themselves and to their spouses. And being a wife means different things to different people. Which is why reading about them and discussing them is fun and interesting! And sometimes even creepy. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      It is well-written. It’s hard to say whether you would like it or not, though, because it is full of adultery. Maybe it depends on how interested you are in reading about the Hemingways.

  11. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors says:

    I really like the way you characterized each wife, especially the first 3. Though we really don’t get much information about Mary. We used many of the same quotes. I really enjoyed this one. I loved learning more about all four of his marriages. He was definitely a ‘troubled soul,’ in my opinion. While he certainly did treat the women in his life like shit, he did suffer from depression, at the very least, if not other emotional disorders, so I must give him a bit of a break just due to that…not as if he had control of himself in many ways. He did commit suicide, after all! I thought Mary was an interesting one, especially after talking with Martha, etc., she really had guts to tough it out with him…

    • Naomi says:

      I really don’t know what to think about his wives – are they brave for toughing it out with him? Or are they foolish for getting involved? Probably neither. Or some of both, like all of us. And like Ernest. I find it so interesting that I’m quick to judge them after reading about them, but in my real life I’m not quick to judge anyone. Maybe I think it’s okay because none of them are around anymore, or because I don’t know them. I actually liked all the women for various reasons. And maybe I would have liked Ernest, too, if I had known him, or if he could have gotten some help. Which leads me to ask – how do you separate the person from the mental illness? It makes him unlikable, but it’s an illness so I feel a bit guilty for not liking him.

      • Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors says:

        Such good questions, Naomi! Thought-provoking! Ah, and therein lies the challenge! Just as you cannot separate a person from physical illness (severed limb, impaired mobility due to a stroke, etc.), you cannot separate a person from their mental/emotional instability/illness either. My aunt ‘dealt with’ paranoid schizophrenia. It is challenging to endure the ‘different’/abnormal behaviors and characteristics of those who suffer from emotional/mental instability. I always view it the same as I do getting to know anyone… I have learned to search for the characteristics I can appreciate or like and try to reconcile those that annoy or frustrate me. (It just occurred to me that I really need to do more of this with one of the people in my own department at work…) Is it easy? Sometimes it is easier than others. But it can also be overwhelming at other times. As with anything else, I just keep trying to improve my acceptance and attitude. Regarding judgement of the wives…I believe it is always easier to ‘judge’ others (compared to evaluating ourselves), and it is easier the further removed they are from our daily lives. I believe that is, in large part, what makes discussion of reading materials to be so beneficial… We can judge without fear of recrimination or being ‘overheard.’ 🙂

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