Naomi Wood’s second novel has taken an entirely different direction from her first, The Godless Boys, which explored religious and atheist extremism in an alternative-reality England of the 1980s. Mrs Hemingway tells the story of Ernest Hemingway’s four marriages, allotting sections in sequence to Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh. Though all are in the third person, each section is effectively narrated from the perspective of the wife in question. We are offered a complete portrait not of each woman but only of her relationship with Ernest, producing a novel that is something between a fictional biography of the writer as seen by his wives and a genealogy of the title ‘Mrs Hemingway’. For these women the name Hemingway is, rather like a crown, much desired and desperately clung to, usurped or abdicated. The scene opens in Antibes in 1926, where ‘everything, now, is done à trois’: mistress Pauline Pfeiffer, known as Fife, makes an unhappy ménage with Ernest and first wife, Hadley, on a summer retreat; thereafter the action moves freely in time until it closes in September 1961, as Mary struggles to accept her husband’s suicide.
The novel is well researched, the raw material interesting, the selection and arrangement of it cleverly done. The irony, for instance, of Hadley’s subsequent turn as a mistress in someone else’s marriage is archly revealed in Fife’s section. The structuring of fictional elements (not that they are easily separated from