Friday, April 19, 2013

Book Club Friday: Hemingway's Girl

I'm currently halfway through reading Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck. I can't even wait until I finish this book to blog about it because I love, love, love this book. This is a case of "I waited forever to pick it up, but once I did I was sorry I ever waited."

The publisher's description as found on GoodReads says:

She remembered when Hemingway had planted a banyan at his house and told her its parasitic roots were like human desire. At the time she’d thought it romantic. She hadn’t understood his warning.”

"In Depression-era Key West, Mariella Bennet, the daughter of an American fisherman and a Cuban woman, knows hunger. Her struggle to support her family following her father’s death leads her to a bar and bordello, where she bets on a risky boxing match...and attracts the interest of two men: world-famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, and Gavin Murray, one of the WWI veterans who are laboring to build the Overseas Highway.

"When Mariella is hired as a maid by Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline, she enters a rarified world of lavish, celebrity-filled dinner parties and elaborate off-island excursions. As she becomes caught up in the tensions and excesses of the Hemingway household, the attentions of the larger-than-life writer become a dangerous temptation...even as the reliable Gavin Murray draws her back to what matters most. Will she cross an invisible line with the volatile Hemingway, or find a way to claim her own dreams? As a massive hurricane bears down on Key West, Mariella faces some harsh truths...and the possibility of losing everything she loves."

I've been a little obsessed with Ernest Hemingway ever since I was 18. My Novel class read A Farewell to Arms, and then we went on a class trip to Oak Park, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago). We visited a Hemingway display at the public library, Oak Park and River Forest High School (Hemingway's alma mater), and Hemingway's childhood home (where you'll find his earliest short story, "Cat," written and illustrated when he was four).  Because I'd already bonded with the deceased author in his home environment, it was that much exciting in 2004 when Tit Elingtin and I visited the Hemingway house in Key West, Florida. 

(I personally took the following two photos. They're not great photos, but they're mine.) 
Hemingway's bar. When he drank there, it was called Sloppy Joe's. There's still a Sloppy Joe's in Key West, but it's at a different location. 
Inside the master bedroom. (I don't know the person pictured; she's just another tourist.) 
I have a Hemingway bond - which is why I nearly blow a blood vessel when I watch Lost and Henry/Ben says Ernest Hemingway "fought in the Spanish Civil War." Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, and before that he was wounded in the First World War, not as a combatant but as a civilian Red Cross volunteer. Ben Linus can quote John Steinbeck at will, so he should be well-versed enough in American literature to understand that distinction. 

Now, Hemingway's Girl is completely fictional. Mariella Bennet is a product of the author's imagination. Even though some names and places are based on real life, Robuck states up front that she's taken artistic license with them. No one should mistake this book for history. 

Reading Hemingway's Girl brings back a lot of pleasant memories of our vacation to Key West. The 1930s (Depression-era) tropical setting is really enjoyable, and I recognize some of the major Key West landmarks, like Mallory Square at sunset. I'm loving this book for a number of other reasons as well. For one thing, Mariella Bennet is the kind of strong, self-reliant, confident heroine you just have to love. She's wrestling with her own conscience, fighting her attraction to "Papa" and developing her attraction to the scarred World War I vet Gavin. She never loses sight of her goals, though: making sure her two little sisters are taken care of now that their father's gone and saving money to open her own charter boat business. 

Mariella is a fully developed character, with goals, flaws, weaknesses and strengths. Hemingway as a character, too, has flaws and strengths; he is neither overly romanticized nor reduced to a caricature of himself. 

Another place I really have to give Robuck credit is in the relationship between Mariella and Hemingway's wife Pauline. This could have been just another example of two female characters who have a cold, bitchy relationship characterized by rivalry - the old stereotype that women are like beta fish and you can't put two in the same fishbowl without a fight to the death. Pauline is a well-developed character with faults and strengths. We can empathize with her even though she can, at times, be jealous or condescending. Instead of setting them up as enemies, Robuck allows the women to be characters who each have their own needs and concerns, some of which are in conflict, but who also can sympathize with and help each other. I love a book that respects its female characters enough to let them be human. 

Even though I haven't finished it yet, I'd recommend giving this book a chance. I don't think I'm going to be disappointed with it, whatever Mariella decides in regard to her relationships. (We know from the prologue that, 25 or so years after the events of the main narration, Mariella has an adult son. I presume that Gavin is going to be that son's father, but I can't know for sure yet.) You never know - sometimes it's possible to love, love, love the first half of the book and then get disenchanted with later chapters (Her Fearful Symmetry, I'm looking at you).

If you read this, let me know whether you liked it or not.

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