If I needed to sum up this story and these characters in one word, it would be 'desire.' If I were permitted two words, I would add 'disappointment.'
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I meant to say first that this is the first Hemingway novel I ever read. I'd read a short story or two in high school, and during my freshman year at college, my friends and I watched City of Angels (1998) a lot. Hemingway's memoir A Moveable Feast figures prominently in the movie, and I decided to read it once school was done. But when I got home that summer, I discovered my library didn't have it. They did have this, and the quote from Ecclesiastes inside intrigued me, so I checked it out. I can still remember that copy, old and rebound in that funny, rough hardcover stuff libraries used to use. Bright orange. I felt so intellectual, reading Ernest Hemingway at nineteen. Reading and enjoying him.
I didn't quite get everything that was going on, that first time through. Or rather, I didn't quite get that the protagonist, Jake Barnes, had been emasculated by a war wound. I knew he'd been wounded, I knew he was angry and disappointed about things, but Hemingway implies everything about the wound, in his inimitable way, and I didn't figure it out. Not that it mattered, because I was perpetually drunk on his prose. Hemingway was unlike any writer I'd encountered up to that point -- strong, evasive, beautiful, ugly, and with such a feeling of truth running under everything.
Okay, back to 'desire' and 'disappointment.' From here on, there are spoilers.
As I said, Jake Barnes was wounded in WWI in such a way that he's no longer able to have sex. He's a foreign correspondent for some American newspaper, living in Paris in the expatriate community. And he's in love with Lady Brett Ashley, a divorcee with a fondness for alcohol and sex. She's almost in love with him too, but because he can't fulfill her desires, she knows she'd never truly be happy with him. So she is engaged to a guy named Mike, but goes off on a trip with another guy named Cohn, and then dumps him, and later takes up with a bullfighter and has a fling with him instead. And Jake tries not to be miserable during all that.
Like I said, it's all about desires and disappointment. Jake and Brett desire each other, but can't do anything about it. Mike and Cohn and the bullfighter desire Brett, but are all disappointed when she leaves them for someone else. Brett desires them too, but they all disappoint her one way or another. In the end, no one really gets what they want. Jake at least seems to understand that what he wishes could have been between him and Brett might not have been as wonderful as they can always imagine it would have been.
And if that sounds sordid and depressing, you're not wrong. Or right. It's not completely sordid in that Hemingway never actually uses the word 'sex' or describes anything of that nature, other than that sometimes characters kiss each other. Everything else is implied -- even the characters talk around it. And it's not completely depressing because by the end, I feel like Jake at least has come to accept what can and can't be and can move forward with his life a bit.
My one quibble with Hemingway's writing is that he often does these long conversations with not enough dialog tags, so I have to go back and reread parts to figure out who's saying what. But I've become resigned to that issue, as his writing delights me otherwise.
Particularly Good Bits:
"I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it" (p. 18).
"You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another" (p. 19).
It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing (p. 42).
He was the archivist, and all the archives of the town were in his office. That has nothing to do with the story (p. 102).
"Good. Coffee is good for you. It's the caffeine in it. Caffeine, we are here" (p. 120).
The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta (p. 158).
If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for language, alcohol use, oblique references to sex, and violence.
EDIT: I forgot to mention there are some racist comments made about Jews, and the "n" word gets used in a matter-of-fact way, not as a slur. Remember, this was written almost 90 years ago, when things were a lot different.
This is my eighth book read and reviewed for the Classics Club, and my fifth for the I Love Library Books challenge.