Written by Ella Walker


Shelf Life

This week Ella Walker assesses Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood. Is it worthy of a permanent place on her shelf?

stacked booksWas it love at first sight?

It’s got a very sexy cover, and I never use the word ‘sexy’, not ever. All clean lines, 1920s bathing suits, red T-bars and azure pops of blue, it has the same effect as the blinding colour of the sky when you step from a dark room into bright light. It properly wooed me.

How long did it take you to feel truly comfortable around each other?

Quartered into the marriages of the rugged, wayward Ernest Hemingway and spliced so you know the end is coming for each, Wood introduces his wives in chronological order, jumping from Hadley to Fife, to Martha and ending with Mary.

Their voices are so clear, so distinct, that it takes a page or two to accept the fact you aren’t allowed to stick with just one (come back, Hadley).

Did it make you laugh out loud?

This book is not a laughing matter. Although whimsical at times, and brilliantly ridiculous – Fife in particular blazes contrarily – it is all too final, and upsettingly inevitable.

Could you take it on holiday with you, without getting severely hacked off after three days?

Prone to letting the emotions bound up in a book filter into your personality? Struggle to shake it off for a few days? Yeah, don’t take this away, unless of course you enjoy feeling uneasy, suspicious, prickly and, well, catatonically drunk on your holidays. If that sounds like your ideal getaway, book a trip to Paris, London, the Riviera, or Key West, cheat on your partner and you’ll have nailed the true Hemingway experience.

How would you describe it behind its back?

Absorbing and infuriating in equal measure. You want to slap Hadley and scream: “Stand up to him – don’t define yourself by one lost suitcase, however valuable!” It feels necessary to ring Fife up and implore her not to quit a job at Vogue for a philanderer and a big old lonely house at the beach. Martha would be wonderful on a night out, and Mary, well, Mary is the most opaque of the lot. In the nittiest-grittiest sense, what is most difficult to comprehend, still, is why? Why marry him at all?

“These women, cheated on, abandoned, at the mercy of Hemingway’s wine-infused whims, still emerge from the wreckage of the writer’s wants and needs and constant yearnings for more than any one person could provide, intact – strong.”

How would it describe your commitment levels – did you put the effort in?

Oh yes, and several hours of in-depth Wikipedia scouring on top of that. That’s the wonderful and horrible thing about fictionalised real-life stories: once you’ve closed the book (or, if you are incurably nosy like me, at the end of every page) you begin trying to find the gaps between truth and fabrication.

Your brain starts a-whirring, attempting to decipher which imaginary moments could never have happened, until before you know it, you’re fact-checking dates and locations and leaping forward in time to find out how they died. Morbid? Very. But it gets to the point where you’ve snooped so much you can justify your prying because you feel you know these people. You’ve been through that divorce, and that one, and you’re picking sides: Hadley over Fife, suddenly Fife over Martha.

It’s exactly why I’ve had to stop watching Made In Chelsea (don’t judge) – I can’t bear not knowing what’s real, what’s not and what’s been staged for dramatic effect. It drives you insane.

You’ve had a nightmare time. Would it provide the understanding to get you through / soak up your tears?

It would definitely commiserate with you. There’s a lot of heartache packed into these pages, but it’s strange how these women, cheated on, abandoned, at the mercy of Hemingway’s wine-infused whims (except Martha, of course, the only one who gave as good as she got), still emerge from the wreckage of the writer’s wants and needs and constant yearnings for more than any one person could provide, intact – strong. Their stories billow as violently and as importantly as his.

Would you let it meet your other friends?

Certainly, mostly to compare notes on whether it is really possible to go and stay in a beach house, invite your husband’s mistress and then play cards together as a trio. Surely not?! Hadley always was my favourite. What a woman.

If you suddenly stumbled across it after several years of lost contact, do you reckon you would:
a) Think of it fondly but accept you’d both moved on (keep but don’t read)
b) Pick up exactly where you left off (reread every few years)
c) Ditch it, obviously you were never really friends

A strangely wistful b). It’s the kind of book you could dip into on a rainy afternoon as a reminder that you’re lucky enough to not be married to a womanising (if genius) drunk, or to disappear into a world of feathered party dresses and pigeons cooked on open fires, and war stories tapped out on old keys. It’s another lifetime (well, four – five if you include Hem), and sometimes you just need that.

Next month Ella will be reading The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness.


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Written by Ella Walker

Ella Walker is an entertainment writer and book blogger living in Cambridge. She likes swimming in the sea and eating biscuits. Preferably at the same time.