Recently there have been quite a few novels that have taken real life stories as their inspiration but Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway is one of the few I’ve come across that has delivered the satisfaction of a convincing and well-crafted fiction along with the feeling of reading about events that did or could have taken place. The ‘could have’ is important. The author reminds us that this is fiction and I don’t know if Pauline ‘Fife’ Pfeiffer wore a dress of black feathers to seduce her friend’s husband or if sleazy bookseller Harry Cuzzemano ever existed. But something in the way it is written convinces me that the story is true to whatever facts are already known. In other words this book has the feeling of reality without being a slave to it, which I think is a hard act to pull off. It’s also an absorbing and well-paced read in which we can feel the torpor of summer in Antibes, the claustrophobia of Cuba and the peculiar anarchy of post-liberation Paris.
The book gains momentum by focussing on the moment when each of the wives sees another woman come into view and realises her time with Hemingway is coming to an end. Because of this structure, the story skips backwards and forwards in time, and during each episode past events are also recounted, so that once or twice I was confused and had to make a point of reading the date/place chapter headings with care. Other than that I was swept along in the stories of four very different women and the one man who held them – and many others – emotionally captive.
Maybe the book gains from not speaking in the voice of Hemingway himself but letting us see the effect he had on others. It had certainly made me eager to find out more about Hemingway’s life and work – which must be the best test of this kind of fictional biography and Naomi Wood’s website is a great place to start. As a writer, I confess to being just a tad envious of the author’s funded research to all these fabulous places, but also uplifted to know that a task I was beginning to think was impossible, actually can be done.