Read the opening of Naomi Wood‘s intricately researched novel Mrs. Hemingway which gives voice to the four women who loved the enigmatic author…
Everything, now, is done à trois. Breakfast, then swimming; lunch, then bridge; dinner, then drinks in the evening. There are always three breakfast trays, three wet bathing suits, three sets of cards left folded on the table when the game, abruptly and without explanation, ends. Hadley and Ernest are accompanied wherever they go by a third: this woman slips between them as easily as a blade. This is Fife: this is her husband’s lover.
Hadley and Ernest sleep together in the big white room of the villa, and Fife sleeps downstairs, in a room meant for one. The house is quiet and tense until one of their friends arrives with soap and provisions, idling by the fence posts, wondering whether it might be best to leave the three undisturbed.
They lounge around the house—Hadley, Ernest, and Fife—and though they know they are all miserable no one is willing to sound the first retreat; not wife, not husband, not mistress. They have been in the villa like this for weeks, like dancers in relentless motion, trying to exhaust each other into falling.
The morning is already warm and the light has turned the white cotton sheets nearly blue. Ernest is sleeping. His hair is still parted as it was during the day, and there is a warm fleshy smell to his skin that Hadley would tease him about were she in the mood. Around his eyes is a sunburst of wrinkles on the browned skin; Hadley can imagine him squinting out over the top of the boat, looking for the best place to drop anchor and fish.
In Paris, his beauty has become notorious; it is shocking what he can get away with. Even their male friends are bowled over by his looks; they outpace the barmaids in their affection for him. Others see beyond all this to his changeability: meek, at times; bullish at others—he has been known to knock the spectacles off a man’s face after a snub in the bal musette. Even some of their close friends are nervous of him—including Scott—though they are older and more successful, it doesn’t seem to matter. What contrary feelings he stirs in men. With women it’s easier—they snap their heads to watch him go and they don’t stop looking until he’s gone. She only knows of one who isn’t charmed by him.
Hadley lies looking up at the ceiling. The beams have been eaten away; she can track the worm’s progress through the wood. Lampshades sway as if there is a great weight to them, though all they are is paper and dowelling. Someone else’s perfume bottles glint on the dressing table. Light presses at the shutters. It will be hot again today.
Hadley really wants nothing more than to be in cold old Paris, in their apartment with the smells of pigeon roasting on the coal fire and the pissoir off the landing. She wants to be back in the narrow kitchen and the bathroom where damp spores the walls. She wants to have their usual lunch of boiled eggs at a table so small their knees knock together. It was at this table that Hadley had her suspicions of the affair confirmed. I think Ernest and Fife are very fond of each other, Fife’s sister had said. That’s all she had needed to say.
Yes, Hadley would rather be in Paris or even St. Louis right now, these cities which nurse their ash-pit skies and clouds of dead sleet—anywhere but here, in the violet light of glorious Antibes. At night, fruit falls to the grass with a soft thunk and in the morning she finds the oranges split and stormed by ants. The smell around the villa is ripening. And already, this early, the insects have begun.
Hadley gets up and goes over to the window. When she presses her forehead against the glass, she can see his mistress’s room. Fife’s blinds are closed. Their son Bumby sleeps downstairs, too, having fended off the whooping cough—the coqueluche—which brought them all to this villa in the first place. Sara Murphy didn’t want Bumby near her children for fear the infection would spread. The Fitzgeralds were good to offer their villa for the quarantine—they didn’t have to. But when Hadley walks around the villa, touching their glamorous things, it feels awful to have her marriage end in the rented quarters of another family’s house.
Tonight, however, marks the end of their quarantine. The Murphys have invited them over to Villa America and it will be the first time this vacation that the unhappy trio has been in the company of friends. To Hadley, the party feels both exciting and dreadful: something has happened in the villa that nobody else has seen, as if someone has wet the mattress and not owned up to the fast-cooling spot in the middle of the bedclothes.
Hadley climbs back into bed. The sheet is tense around Ernest; she tries to pull it back so that he’ll think she hasn’t yet left, but he has the cotton bunched in his fist. She kisses the top of his ear and whispers, “You’ve stolen the bedding.”
Ernest doesn’t answer but scoops her toward him. In Paris he likes to be up early and in his studio by nine. But in Antibes these embraces happen many times daily, as if Ernest and Hadley are in the first flush of romance again, even while both of them know this summer might be the end of things. Lying next to him she wonders how it is she has lost him, although perhaps that is not quite the right phrase, since she has not lost him, not yet. Rather Fife and Hadley wait and watch as if they are lining up for the last seat on a bus.
“Let’s go for a swim.”
“It’s too early, Hash.” Ernest’s eyes are still closed though there is a flicker behind the lids. She wonders if he’s weighing both of them up now that he is awake. Should it be wife? Or mistress? Mistress, or wife? The brain’s whisper begins.
Our booksellers thought:
“Naomi Wood really gets inside the lives of Hemingway and his many wives… it is a great read and a fascinating look at the great but complex man and his writing.” June Davies, Waterstones Northallerton