Naomi Wood’s American debut could not be further from her 2011 dystopian novel, “The Godless Boys,’’ which made an indelible impression on the United Kingdom’s literary landscape with its starkly-realized story line and chillingly-bleak atmosphere. With “Mrs. Hemingway,’’ however, Wood more than cements her credentials as an exciting and exacting writer.
In Wood’s compelling fictionalization of Ernest Hemingway’s four marriages, the novel’s structure mimics the perpetually overlapping character of the relationships. The distinct segments of the book belong, in turn, to each of the four wives — Hadley Richardson, Pauline
Pfeiffer (“Fife’’), Martha Gellhorn, and Mary Welsh. But, just as they did in life, the women populate each other’s chapters, each section opening as the current wife is discovering just how far Ernest’s relationship with another woman has gone. It’s a skillfully executed setup, and, along with Wood’s evocative use of language and research, creates a pleasurable recasting of a well-known story.
The first section opens with Fife firmly installed in Ernest and Hadley’s lives, the three of them indulging in endless rounds of bridge and gin and tonics as well as showing off their diving skills in the Mediterranean surf. It’s a scenario, however delightfully set in sunny southern France, that’s not without its discomforts, tending to make Lady Diana’s wry remark about the role of Camilla Parker Bowles (“Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”) echo endlessly in the near distance.
Each wife finds herself in the same circumstance, except for Mary, for whom it was even more challenging. “There weren’t two women in her marriage; there were always four — Hadley, Fife, Martha, and Mary.” On the one hand, there’s something beguiling in the tolerance that the women display toward one another — we see them interacting, often even liking each other — but the frustrations and heartbreaks are just as present, giving “Mrs. Hemingway’’ a frisson of constant conflict that nudges the action continually forward.
The fun starts in 1926, at a time when Hemingway is poised for greatness. His “In Our Time’’ is still in the shadow of Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,’’ but his debut novel, known to his friends as “The Sun,’’ is on the brink of publication. It’s a heady time, and Wood nails it, complete with a marvelously drunken party at the home of Gerald and Sara Murphy, then the center of the expat scene on the French Riviera.
Ernest sings “Tea for Two” with Scott, dances with Zelda and throws her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, thus inspiring a fabulous fig-throwing incident, but amid the frivolity, major changes were afoot: “Sara was berating Scott, Hadley wasn’t talking to anyone, and in the kitchen Fife had her fingers in Ernest Hemingway’s mouth.”
There are generous glimpses into Fife and Ernest’s Key West home, a tropical paradise with a dark undertone: “He had always been a drinker, but not like this, not out of some compulsion to bury some part of himself.” Wood also serves up a terrific stretch of narrative that follows Martha around newly-liberated 1944 Paris as she’s steeling herself to leave Ernest, cannily juxtaposed with her sensation of feeling smothered by her isolated life in Hemingway’s Cuban villa.
“[I]t felt as if she were being buried. The trellises wrapped themselves around the house. The flowers in the garden looked so big they could swallow a cow. Sometimes she felt as if she were drowning in martinis and flowers.”
Reaching more tentatively and tenderly into the 1960s and Mary’s early days of widowhood, Wood’s depiction of this set of interlocking lives comes to full fruition. Each of the Mrs. Hemingways, in her own inimitable way, was “a sucker for the love of Ernest Hemingway.”Follow Daneet Steffens on Twitter @daneetsteffens.