Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck

I read The Old Man and the Sea many, many years ago in junior high.  As my first introduction to Hemingway, it vaulted him onto my authors to search out list and I promptly scoured my parents' bookshelves for more of his works.  I found The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms from my mother's school years (I still have them on my shelves to this day) and devoured them as well.  I even taught the latter book to my classes when I was in grad school.  But as much as I liked his fiction, I knew that his life had not been a particularly happy one, failed marriages, depression, writer's block, and ultimately suicide.  Still, there's just something magnetic about the Hemingway legacy.  And so the opportunity to read about a fictionalized bit of his time in Key West was terrifically appealing.  Erika Robuck's novel Hemingway's Girl offers just that chance: to peek inside Hemingway's life in 1930's Key West through the eyes of a young Cuban-American woman who captures Papa's attention and comes to work as a maid for Hemingway and second wife Pauline.
Opening in 1961 when, after a day of fishing with her son, Mariella Bennet learns of Ernest Hemingway's death, this novel moves from her deep seated sorrow at the news back in time to her reflections of the year when she was so close to the man.  In 1935, Mariella is a young woman struggling to hold her family together after the unexpected death of her fisherman father.  Her mother is suffering from extreme depression and grief and so it is up to Mariella to find the odd jobs that will help her mother and two younger sisters survive.  The Depression is in full swing and Key West has been hit hard, making it difficult for Mariella to find enough work to not only feed her sisters but to pay for the doctor's visits her youngest sister, prone to fevers, needs so frequently.  In addition to the small jobs she finds, Mariella occasionally finds her way to the local boxing matches, betting her tiny pay on the bouts in the hopes of increasing the amount.  It is here that she first sees both Hemingway and boxer and WWI veteran Gavin Murray who is helping to supervise the building of the Overseas Highway nearby.

Drawn to both men, Mariella accepts Hemingway's suggestion that she apply for work at his home.  She meets Pauline and the rest of Hemingway's family, becoming intimately acquainted with the wealth and extravagance, the tension amongst their set of friends, and the just beneath the surface turmoil of the Hemingway family's life.  Mariella acts as a sort of muse for Hemingway, who is both paternal towards her at the same time he's sending out a dangerous undercurrent of sexual attraction as well.  And Mariella is attracted to Papa, despite knowing better and recognizing how foolhardy it is to invite Pauline's jealousy.  At the same time, she is also pulled to the care and kindness she finds in Gavin and she embarks on the beginnings of a relationship with him.  The two men don't like each other much, competing as they are for Mariella.  As the year progresses, Mariella finds herself in the heart of the Hemingway family and witnessing the cracks in their marriage while she grows ever closer to Gavin, letting him into her own small family.

Robuck has done a fantastic job evoking the Key West of the 1930's, the depressed economy; the clashes between the locals and the poor, damaged vets brought in the build the highway through the swamps and fetid conditions; and the male-dominated fishing, boxing, drinking culture of the time.  Mariella as a main character is complex and realistic as she wrestles with which man is going to play the largest part in her life.  And the way that the narrative tension coils tighter as the historically accurate Labor Day hurricane barrels directly towards the exposed Keys and the hundreds of vets working on the highway is well done.  The beginning of the novel is rather slow though and it takes a bit of time to feel fully invested in the story and Mariella's life.  The plot thread of her ill younger sister isn't quite developed enough to make its inclusion in the story completely understandable and the revelations about Mariella's father and her mother's relatives in Cuba aren't all that surprising.  Overall though, Robuck has written an engaging tale about a young woman searching for a way to move closer to her dream.  It's a tale of love, inspiration, kindness, and despair.  And it offers the larger than life Hemingway in a way not seen before.  Those who have appreciated his works or other fictionalizations about his life should take note because they'll certainly enjoy reading this one as well.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

1 comment:

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