Book review: Mrs. Hemingway

Photograph of Mrs. Hemingway book with chocolates in backgroundI was lucky enough to go along to the book launch for Naomi Wood’s (@NaomiWoodBooks) second book, Mrs. Hemingway. The British Library venue was buzzing with happy authors, publishing folk, family and friends. In her speech, Wood’s editor, Francesca Main (@FrancescaMain, Picador), introduced the author as ‘Hemingway’s fifth wife’. Wood then read movingly not from the book itself but from its raw material: the letters that have been the basis of much of her research.

As a fan of Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys, I have been looking forward to reading her second but saved my signed launch copy for the weekend. I am usually an e-reader so sitting down with a brand new hardback feels like a treat and Mrs. Hemingway was no exception.

The book is separated into four equal parts, one for each of Ernest Hemingway’s wives. I have to admit I found the beginning harder to get into: Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife, is referred back to in the later sections of the novel as an ideal type and Wood successfully creates a slightly heavy sense of inevitability about her role in setting up the novel, as well as Hemingway’s subsequent marriages.

Wood’s narrative moves backwards and forwards in time within each wife’s section, with the location and date marking the mini chapters and providing way-finders for the reader, as in a diary or indeed series of letters. This temporal technique keeps the focus on the point of view of the wife in question, while the section dedicated to the next wife skips backwards to reveal the relationship’s beginnings from their perspective. This interweaving of the book’s present with snippets of the past also means that the book retains its suspense, despite the reader’s knowledge of each relationship’s impending end.

Mrs. Hemingway is not a romanticised portrayal of any of the characters involved, so I was surprised to feel emotional at its conclusion and this is testament to Wood’s storytelling. Throughout the book I enjoyed the rich description brought to each very different character, alongside the vivid geographical settings and references to historical events to set the scene. I really like the focus just on the female characters, with Ernest Hemingway occupying a central structural, but almost ephemeral, position in the book. His significance to the characters and the story is never in doubt but his almost cameo appearances allow his wives’ narratives and personalities to take centre stage in a way otherwise often denied to the wives of famous men.

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