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Naomi Wood: Mrs Hemingway (Picador)

Ernest Hemingway - don'tcha love 'im?

That big strong he-man with the teeth, running all over the earth just to root out the rarin'est bulls, the meanest wars, the biggest martinis, the coldest champagne and the prettiest gals? And writing that prose, my gawd, without those sissy modifiers so that you could just drop dead from its straight-from-the-hip lapidary American masculine themey beauty?

Ernest Hemingway - aren'tcha sick of 'im? With that big beer belly and purple face and vacant look, falling over at Claridges and throwing up all over Paris and Africa, and that need to be mothered and called Papa at the same time, and that unwinning inability to be alone for even a single solitary second?

Anyway. To the man and woman in the street, Ernest Hemingway was novel-writing for decades - until he began to confuse the excitements of his fiction with those in his life, to supplant vividity in the novels with his own exploits. And then he supplanted those with booze, and supplanted booze with death when they told him he couldn't drink any more. (Such was the loyalty of the last Mrs Hemingway to the crumbling edifice of his legend that she insisted he'd had an "accident" while cleaning his gun.)

If he could, Hemingway would have married every woman he went to bed with. As it was, he married four of them: Hadley Richardson, a shy girl he met at a party; Pauline Pfeiffer, a wealthy socialite who really loved him; Martha Gellhorn, a famous war correspondent who really didn't need or want to marry him but caved in when he started to blub; and lastly Mary Welsh, a journalist of a more ordinary stamp, who liked hunting and fishing.

In each instance, having been unfaithful to the first woman with the second, he proceeded to torture them both for months with his own whimpering indecision. They were all strong American girls, and though they had experience of war, and Europe (the domain in which Hemingway had rooted his literary sensibility), he himself wondered why he pursued these vivacious beauties burnished in the heartland of his own country, given that he could have any woman in the world.

Naomi Wood isn't interested in mulling that over, however, because of what looks like her own crush on Hemingway. That is the only centre of this "novel" and, perhaps disappointingly, no different from the hundred million other crushes on Hemingway that people have had, men and women, since Big Two-Hearted River appeared in 1923. He was just so beautiful! Despite Wood's infatuation with the man, she gives little away with regard to her grasp of his prose or his significance as a writer, which must have meant a lot to these four women, as well as to everybody else. The most that she quotes from his work is from the dedication pages of his novels.

Wood claims Mrs Hemingway "is a work of imagination". That is debatable. When a writer paints herself into such a tight corner, following what is well known about a set of real-life personalities, she gives up artistic control over the characters and the plot of her book. That leaves only one sphere in which to manoeuvre: description. It seems that if the thoughts, wishes, dreams and fears of these four women weren't available to Wood in diaries or letters, all she could do was try, rather desperately, to tell us what they might have thought about cobblestones, or how Cuba can seem boring.

There are many humdrum, would-be lush descriptions of water or jungle plants ("spiky" is a word which crops up a lot, presumably, to remind us of the jaggedness of life with Papa).

More than once we have to hear about salt particles on Hemingway's beautiful body (this was in the early days of course) which women want to lick off. As if he's just a big side of bacon - which, to some, is not far from the truth. But if you like to read about these things, Lillian Ross's Portrait Of Hemingway is much more trenchant. And then there are those novels - which are works of imagination.

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