|Hemingway with his fourth wife, Mary, in 1950|
Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – review
The story of how Hemingway moved from mistress to marriage – told by each of his four wives – is as enticing as it is mysterious
Lara FeigelThursday 20 February 2014 08.00 GMT
Ernest Hemingway was unusual not in the number of women he loved, but in the number of those women he wanted to marry. There was Hadley Richardson, the generous, homely older woman, Pauline Pfeiffer, the rich society vamp, Martha Gellhorn, the restless long-legged war correspondent and Mary Welsh, the adoring journalist who took the risky step of giving up her own career to become the fourth Mrs Hemingway. "A feat," Martha Gellhorn says in Naomi Wood's accomplished new novel, "to want to marry every woman he fucks."
Hemingway loved the stability of marriage. As a writer, he found that his nerves were calmer when he knew there was someone there to protect him from the world. But his writing was fuelled by excitement, so he also needed the novelty of other women. And he didn't feel obliged to reconcile these contradictions. He once told F Scott Fitzgerald that his vision of heaven comprised two lovely houses in town, one containing his wife and children, where he would "be monogamous and love them truly and well", the other "where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on nine different floors".
Unfortunately, he wouldn't have been able to stop himself proposing to the mistresses. Mrs Hemingway lays bare the absurdity of this trait by fast‑forwarding between the start and end of all four marriages. Wood manipulates four sets of past-and-present with ease, telling the story from the perspective of each wife in turn. She creates narrative momentum despite the expansive time frame, because holding the novel together is the question of whether Hemingway will ever find a woman to last the course.
Each new wife believes that she alone can provide the requisite mixture of comfort and excitement needed to redeem Hemingway, but only Mary Welsh succeeds in retaining the Mrs Hemingway title until his death. Arguably, by this stage Hemingway is too drunk, depressive and irascible to convince any of his new conquests to marry him. But in Wood's portrait he has also found the complete and restful love he craved for years. The scenes where Mary mourns her husband after his suicide in 1961 are moving in their understated tenderness. We see Mary burning the obituaries and adding a lock of her hair to Hemingway's secret box of conjugal keepsakes.
It is not surprising that Mary's tone is the most assured in the book. The task of ventriloquism is relatively straightforward when the voice is as natural and wry as Mary's. It is harder when it is the less eloquent Hadley. The opening section where Wood tries to impersonate Hemingway's diffident first wife sometimes has an anachronistic chick-lit quality. It is difficult, too, when it is Pfeiffer, whose lazy wit is caught at moments but lost when Wood has her "long for the cherished life as newlyweds". It is almost impossible when it is Gellhorn, whose acerbic war reportage is well known enough for any imitation to feel flat.
For all this, Wood succeeds remarkably well in capturing the best-known voice, that of Hemingway himself, whose dialogue is almost entirely convincing. With anyone else, lines such as "I'm cockeyed crazy about you, Rabbit" would sound absurdly mannered, but Wood is right to think that, with Hemingway, you cannot take it too far. She could have gone further, though, in her psychological analysis of the hero (or villain) of the story. The motivation behind Hemingway's continual desire for marriage remains mysterious.
Reading Wood's book you would think that women flocked to him because he was brilliant in bed. In fact he had lengthy periods of impotence and was often too insecure to be generous (Gellhorn once described sex with Hemingway as, "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am without the thank you"). Wood could have included these contradictions as a way to open up the question of what it was he wanted and never quite found in marriage. At one point Martha thinks: "He is not so much greedy for women as blind to what he thinks he needs and so he grabs at everything." This seems true, but why is he blind and what does he actually need? Admittedly, this conundrum has resisted the analysis of Hemingway's chroniclers for many years, so Wood may be right not to offer her own solution. Certainly her portrayal of Hemingway is enticing, maddening and haunting enough to leave us trying to solve it for ourselves.
• Lara Feigel is the author of The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (Bloomsbury).