The four wives of Ernest Hemingway—each loved, each abandoned—are given understated yet telling voices as they recount their relationships with a mercurial giant of literature.
“He is so good at being in love that Ernest Hemingway makes a rotten husband,” reckons Martha Gellhorn, the third and most rebellious of the writer’s four spouses. Hemingway’s life is familiar territory, and Wood (The Godless Boys, 2011) treads close on the heels of The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s recent novel about Hadley, the first Mrs. Hemingway, but still brings freshness and grace to her matrimonial survey. Thrifty Hadley, from the Midwest, is the most conventional of the women, Hemingway’s companion during his poorest years. Her mistake is to try to stifle her husband’s affair with wealthy Fife (Pauline Pfeiffer) by embracing it; the trio’s tense 1926 holiday in the south of France ends with Hemingway selecting his mistress over his wife. Twelve years later, in Key West, it’s Fife’s turn to be displaced, this time by young Gellhorn, the future war correspondent. After his second divorce, Hemingway and Gellhorn live together idyllically in Cuba, but as he slows down and suggests children (despite already having three), she refuses to stop working. Tired of his selfishness, Gellhorn eventually asks for a divorce in Paris during its liberation in 1944; although Hemingway resists, he’s already writing love poems to Mary Welsh, to whom he will be married when he commits suicide in 1961. Evocative of place, neat in structure, Wood’s novel occasionally tries to understand Hemingway’s promiscuity but in essence leaves his perspective out of the picture, instead presenting his charisma, grandstanding, prodigious boozing and dark complexity from the individual points of view of the women: “such unlikely sisters.”
With its delicate phrasing, softly voiced but insightful portraits, and unsensational handling of the love triangles, Woods’ novel revisits literary myth with restrained empathy.