3.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
If you haven’t read this perennial Hemingway before, and are wondering if you should… well… I’m not sure what to tell you. I recently had an excuse to reread it, and I can totally see why high school English teachers are always assigning it. It has a lot of subtext, and a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments. The dialogue is crisp, the writing clear. But… if I were reading it without knowing it were Hemingway, would I give it a rave review? Probably not. Are there modern books that are just as good (if not better) that were influenced by this? Almost certainly. Worth reading on its own merit? Maybe.
This is a semi-autobiographical Hemingway work that he originally wrote over the course of maybe a couple of months. Its protagonist, Jake Barnes, is intelligent, worldly, and wounded. He’s a member of the Lost Generation (though Hemingway later wrote that he didn’t believe there really was such a thing). He’s no longer romantic or idealistic — the war did a number on him and left him impotent, and now he’s traveling with Lady Brett Ashley, a divorcee who’s sure to disillusion him in other ways.
Originally titled Fiesta, the entire book happens in Spain, with bullfighting and the running of the bulls (encierro) as a backdrop. Though life seems like an almost constant party (hence the original title) everyone is pretty miserable. The characters drink, fight and argue their way through their vacation together. Jake is in love with Brett (though goodness only knows why, she’s kind of terrible in a way many of the female Hemingway characters are), and Brett is in love with… everyone (really, everyone: a bullfighter named Romero, who she’s sure will be the ruin of her, Jake, even though he’s impotent and they can’t do anything about their love; a count…).
While the book looks thin and light, it’s actually a very dense read. If you really want to be “getting” everything, then you have to read through it slowly, sentence by sentence, and you almost have to analyze it to see all the layers of meanings (Jake is depressed and hopeless, but still persevering, abiding like the earth, etc etc). Reading through it now, years and years after it was originally assigned, I really understand why it’s a part of high school curricula, but I don’t know whether I’d really recommend it to passersby. It’s sharp and incisive, but I’m not positive the characters ever become more than caricatures of themselves (Brett especially never rises above the shallow, maneater typecast). It’s a classic, yes, but perhaps more because of the generation it portrayed and the stylized writing it popularized?
Comparisons to Other Authors:
Hemingway is more copied and compared to than the other way around. He was originally a journalist, and it definitely shows. He has a way of “reporting” the scenes and dialogue, with a bare minimum of details that has often been copied in the years and decades since. It means that you can never, ever skim through one of his books (well you could, but you would be more confused than anything that the book was finished and wondering what in heck had actually happened).