A friend recommended this book to me as they thought I would enjoy it. I did but, after finishing it, I’m not sure how to take that statement. What does it say about me that I would enjoy this book? No one can argue that it’s not well written. It’s more that the subject got to me.
Even though I have only read one other Hemingway book (For Whom the Bell Tolls), I still feel like this one is very different from the others. The topic itself seems hugely controversial for the time. The synopsis on the back jacket claims it’s a story of “the dangerous, erotic game” played when a husband and wife both “fall in love with the same woman”. But it’s so much more than that.
It’s the story of a newlywed couple living a life of leisure in Europe. The husband is a writer and the wife seems to come from money. Either way, neither needs to ‘work’ in the conventional sense. They are on permanent holiday, although the husband starts to write again after a time.
In the beginning, everything is fine. They swim and eat and drink to their heart’s content. Then things change. The woman at first seems to just want to dress more like a man, then look more like a man and then finally she brings another woman into their relationship. Chaos and turmoil ensue. The husband goes along with everything although he has his misgivings and resists at some points (although he always caves in the end).
The story is written in Hemingway’s subtle, understated style. We get a beautiful feel for the languor of their existence, the decadence and sometime idleness. He doesn’t spoon feed you all the details, although he does provide many. A lot of things are carefully hidden under the surface and you need to deduce what’s really going on. This is sometimes good, sometimes frustrating but, all in all, I loved the style of writing. He made what could have been such a sordid topic (would have been in today’s style of writing) very elegant and reserved.
What I didn’t like so much was how the wife, who was the catalyst for all the turmoil, was written towards the end. How is it that because she wants to look more manly and be with another woman, she ends up descending into madness? Is it because of when Hemingway was writing this? Do I assume that bisexuality was not as accepted between the 40s and 60s (when Hemingway wrote this book) and this is why the non-conforming female character had to lose her goddamn mind?
I did enjoy the book but this one aspect frustrated me. I felt like it didn’t have to be that way for the wife. Couldn’t she have had a happier ending? Maybe her time was against her. Had she been written in today’s day and age, things might have been different. Or maybe not. Maybe the complication with marriage is that it’s very hard to make it work when there are more than two people involved. Very few of us have the stomach for it.
I say read this book. It makes you think and the writing is beautiful, even if the story doesn’t play out the way you want it to.