For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Love and war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. The guerrilla band is ostensibly led by Pablo, who was once a feared warrior but is now an untrustworthy drunk. The real leader is his woman, the gypsy Pilar, on whose strength and courage Robert will quickly learn to rely. Also in the group is Maria, a beautiful young woman whom the guerrillas rescued from the fascists, but not before they had abused her cruelly, raping her repeatedly and cutting off her hair to advertise her shame to the world. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. And we will see Maria and her Roberto fall in love – a love made more urgent and profound by the uncertainty of the future. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love.

At first the writing seems odd – Hemingway uses thee and thou and a stylised sentence structure in the dialogue throughout, as a way, I assume, of reminding the reader that in fact the participants are speaking in a language which Robert knows well but is still foreign to him. He also replaces the infrequent swear words with euphemistic replacements, so that one gets sentences like: “And when thou comest to the camp, order that someone should relieve me because I have indescribable and unprintable hunger and I have forgotten the password.” However, he does it so well and consistently that very soon the reader’s mind becomes attuned to it, and it begins to add to the sense of place and time. (It also meant this reader spent way too much time guessing which swear words were being bleeped out…)

Book 60 of 90

The main story, of the plot to blow up the bridge and of the love affair, is wonderful in itself, full of drama and tension, brutally savage at times followed by scenes of tender beauty. Regulars will know that I have mercilessly mocked other male writers’ attempts to write sex scenes, but boy, Hemingway knows exactly how to make something erotic without any explicit description of body parts or bodily fluids! (I was amused to discover that this is the book from which the famous question “Did the earth move for you?” originated, although in the book it is a moment of real emotion rather than the naughty wink-wink joke it had become by my teen years.)

“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more.”

Maria, admittedly, is little more than a beautiful sex object, the idealised submissive female rather typical of the time. But she is strongly counter-balanced by the depth Hemingway brings to Pilar – for me, the real central character of the book. It is Pilar who tells us about the tragic life of the matador she once loved, a wonderfully told and absorbing tale which shows the importance of bullfighting as part of the culture both as it happens and as a basis for the tradition of oral storytelling and mythologising which feeds into the camaraderie and fellowship of the band. It is Pilar, too, who tells us of the time that she and Pablo took back her village from the fascists, repaying atrocity with atrocity, and showing the reader how easily good people can become a vicious mob, each afraid to stand out and goading each other on to ever worse barbarity. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own. Here too we see how the peasants, told by the Communists that God no longer exists, struggle with a sense of loss for a religion that has been so deeply embedded in their culture.

….“You have killed?” Robert Jordan asked.
….“Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even fascists whom we must kill.”
….“Yet you have killed.”
….“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.”
….“By whom?”
….“Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, who forgives, I do not know.”

Hemingway doesn’t delve into the minutiae of politics in Spain, but instead treats fascism as a universal threat. He has Robert talk to the other characters about his own country, America, suggesting it is not immune to the forces ripping Spain apart. Much of what he says about that aspect sounds depressingly like the current political state of the US, giving the book a feel of contemporary relevance. Robert does not consider himself a Communist – he is fighting for love of the Republic – but he knows that when he goes home he will likely be branded a Red and be barred from pursuing his career in teaching. He tries to imagine life in America after the war, with Maria as his wife, but there’s a pathos to these scenes because we also see that he doesn’t expect them ever to come true. Robert has killed men and is willing to kill more, but he knows that when it is over, if he lives, he will be changed forever by what he has experienced.

Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.

So much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. What a great start to my new challenge!

Book 1

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76 thoughts on “For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

  1. Oh my goodness! What a fantastic review! This book has gone from having zero appeal to being added to the top of my list.
    I always thought Hemingway was known to be a misogynist, a man’s man, so am surprised to learn that a strong woman is the group’s leader and the central character. Does the story give much background to the war or does it assume the reader knows how it began, who is fighting for what, and so on?

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    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, that’s always put me off reading him too and I must say that I didn’t think much of his one female character in the only other book of his I’ve read, The Sun Also Rises, although I ended up loving the book overall. But I was stunned by what a great character Pilar is in this one – really well done and not at all a misogynistic portrayal. He does assume the reader knows about the war but it doesn’t matter too much since the book is not really about what happened in Spain politically, exactly – it’s more about the impact of civil wars on the people caught up in them, so it could really almost be any civil war. All you really need to know is Franco=fascists=Nationalists, and Republicans were anti-fascists+communists+anarchists…

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      • Well, now I know more about the Spanish Civil War than I did before!
        I remember your review of The Sun Also Rises which didn’t endear Hemingway to me at all. This review changed my ideas completely. I’m dithering about putting the book on my next set for The Classics Club or just seeing if it comes my way sooner.

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        • Haha – that’s the total sum of I know about it… so far! 😉

          I do that all the time with classics – I must have a list of around eighty already for my next list and I’ve still got a year and a half to go on this one… too many books!! 😉

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    • Thank you! I’ve only read one other, The Sun Also Rises, and although I loved the writing and the exploration of masculinity, I thought his one female character was awful. But in this one Pilar is great and not at all misogynistically portrayed. Maybe it’s only young women he was bad at…

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    • Thank you – hope you enjoy it! I’d avoided him too for the same reasons, and then for some reason I read The Sun Also Rises – I think someone recommended it to me – and although I had some issues with the female character I loved the book overall. In this one, though, Pilar is a great female character and the real heart of the book, so I hereby find him not (always) guilty of misogyny! 😉

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  2. So glad you enjoyed this as much as you did, FictionFan. Hemingway knew how to develop characters and have them interact, didn’t he? And he had a way of conveying the background (the war, etc..), so that you feel the time and place, but aren’t overwhelmed by descriptions. It’s down to the characters, and I think he does them very well. You’re right, too; it’s not easy to write a good erotic scene – that takes skill. So often they’re either boring or just, well, trashy.

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    • His sense of place is brilliant – he uses all the senses so that you don’t just see the place, you feel it and smell it. I loved The Sun Also Rises overall but had some reservations about it, but once I got used to the language in this one I had no reservations at all. So good to discover it had a strong well-developed important female character – not what I expected from him at all! And I did enjoy those sex scenes… 😉

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  3. Woo hoo! It’s been a very long time since I read it, and I’m due a re-read. Wonderful review, FF! I had no idea what that euphemism could be. I stared at it a long time. 😂 I recently read Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea and enjoyed revisiting this time period.

    Reviews like these remind me why naming my cat Hemingway was a solid choice. ♥️

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    • Thank you! 😀 I want to re-read it again already – I reckon I’d get even more out of it not having to wonder how it turns out. Haha – I can’t work that euphemism out either but I had fun trying! Just as well it’s cats I’ve got and not parrots. 😉 I’ve been seeing reviews of the Allende around the place and have been tempted to add it to the challenge… I’ll see how I get on with the ones I already have first though.

      I’ll be reviewing Dickens soon too… 😺

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  4. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Hemingway. At his best, he is a very good writer, keeping a tight cap on his emotions but you can feel them bubbling up underneath nevertheless. At other times he makes me feel I can’t possibly enjoy the best things in life because I am a mere woman. But this is one of his better books (I also like many of his short stories).

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    • I’ve only read two – this and The Sun Also Rises. I did love it overall too, but had quite a lot of reservations about it, not least the terrible characterisation of the sole woman. So I was really delighted that Pilar was so well done in this one – maybe it’s only young women he can’t write! I’m looking forward to reading more of him now…

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        • Yes, that sounds exactly right. Mind you, he’s not the only male author, especially of that era, who seemed to have that problem! If Maria had been the only woman in this one I’d have felt very differently about it, I suspect.

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  5. Great review! I’m not surprised at the five-star rating. But I am inclined to agree with MarinaSofia’s comment.

    Hemingway was a master of subtext. I’ve read some of his short stories to study subtext.

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    • I’ve only read two of his books so far and while I loved The Sun Also Rises overall too, I had far more reservations about it especially with the way he portrayed the sole woman. So I was delighted Pilar was such a great character in this one – it redeemed him! I’m looking forward to reading more of him so I’ll try to get hold of some of his short stories.

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  6. I feel certain I read this in high school, but just can’t remember. Looking at your review, I can understand why it might not have appealed to me that much at the time. So often good books are wasted on kids who aren’t ready for them yet… not that I didn’t enjoy my share of “great literature” back then. It’s a shame there wasn’t more emphasis on optional reading rather than mandatory lists.

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    • We didn’t get any Hemingway at school – too much sex for the prudish Brits of my day, I suspect! I don’t think I’d have got on with this at all when I was very young – I think you have to have a little understanding of the war and the politics to feel involved, though not too much. I do think schools quite probably put loads of people off reading altogether – they destroyed some books completely for me that I would probably have enjoyed if I’d read them on my own a few years later.

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    • Thank you! 😀 I loved Pilar, and I was so surprised by her because I’d never assumed Hemingway would be able to write good female characters. I wonder if she was based on a real person he met during the war. His prose is wonderful – so full of beauty and poetry without ever sounding overdone. I think I might be becoming a Hemingway fangirl… 😉

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    • Thank you! 😀 I’ve only read one other – The Sun Also Rises – and I did love it too although I had quite a lot of reservations about the way he portrayed the sole woman in it. But in this one I thought Pilar was such a great character I’ve decided to stop thinking of him as a misogynist! 😉

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  7. I’m glad your new challenge got off to such a great start. Somehow, I avoided Hemingway at school and university, and have felt no particular desire to read him in the years since then. This sounds like a powerful book though, and there seems to be a good balance between the best and worst of human nature, so like everyone else on this thread, I’ve added it to my TBR.

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    • He has such a reputation for being misogynistic and I certainly didn’t like the portrayal of the sole woman in the only other book of his I’ve read – The Sun Also Rises – although I loved it for other reasons. So I was both relieved and surprised by the Pilar character in this one and I’ve decided to find him not guilty of misogyny… until I read the next one at least! 😉 I do hope you enjoy this one – as you’ve gathered, I thought it was really something special.

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  8. Perfect start to the challenge! It sounds like a great story – based on the first quote, I’m not sure I could get used to the language, though. Wonderful review, I hope all of your other books in this challenge can live up to this!

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    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, my only fear is that this one has set the bar very high for the challenge – the other books will have to work hard to compete! I thought at first that I might not be able to put up with the language but it didn’t take long before he’d won me over and gradually I grew to really appreciate it and think it added to the sense of place.

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  9. I never read this one (and I’m an English major, ha!). I must’ve had more than my share of instructors who held similar opinions of Hemingway as you did. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this one more than The Old Man and the Sea!!

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    • Nope, not me – I haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea! Maybe you’re thinking of my suffering with Moby Dick? I’ve only read two Hemingways so far and loved them both, though I loved this one a lot more than The Sun Also Rises. We didn’t get Hemingway at school – too much sex for the prudish Brits of my era, I suspect! 😉

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  10. This sounds great! So far my only experience of Hemingway has been A Farewell to Arms and I didn’t get on with the writing style so dismissed him as not my sort of author. Maybe I was too quick to do that, because this book seems much more appealing.

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    • I’ve only read this and The Sun Also Rises, and while I loved it too I had a lot of reservations both with the writing and the portrayal of the one woman in it. But no reservations with this one! I don’t feel he should be my sort of author either, but somehow he is… 😀

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  11. I feel like I’ve read mixed (contemporary) reactions to this book, so interesting you enjoyed it! The closest I’ve come to reading Hemingway lately is the work of historical fiction told from the perspective of his second wife, who was a war correspondent like himself. Sort of reminds me of the romance you’re describing in this book-two people caught in these crazy circumstances, who most likely won’t be able to replicate their relationship in the ‘real world’.

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    • This one is actually dedicated to Martha Gellhorn and I believe they were together while he was writing it. Maria, though, is too submissive to be based on her, I think, but yes, the possibility of their relationship working after the war is over is remote and that adds to the whole feeling of tragedy. I can see why this wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. 😀

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    • I’ve only read this and The Sun Also Rises, and although I grew to love it too I struggled much more with the writing and the portrayal of the sole woman in that one. This one, once I got used to the style, blew me away! I’m looking forward to trying some of his other stuff now…

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  12. Thank you so much for this review. I started receiving your blog just recently after reading your views on the translations of Dr. Zhivago. I was thinking of rereading it and wanted more info on the best translation. Your info was great, (except when you called Omar Sharif “my Omar”, when he has always been MY Omar, lol) At any rate, I read this great Hemingway novel many years ago and recently bought a cheap paperback to reread on a vacay. You have reviewed it so well that I am eager to get back into it. My Dad was a great reader, so when I say that this was his favourite book of all time, it is quite a compliment. He was a great Hemingway fan. It’s true that Hemingway is not for everyone; but once you’re hooked, you’re hooked. One of my favourites is the lesser known “Green Hills of Africa.” Thanks again for an intuitive review.

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    • Thank you for visiting and commenting! It’s great to know you found the Zhivago post helpful – I’m always fascinated by the differences in translations and it always leaves me feeling I can never quite know how much of the book I’ve read is the author’s and how much the translator’s. I suspect that’s why I’ve read so few translated classics – a sad lack in my reading! Haha – we’ll have to have a duel over Omar, then – custard pies at dawn! 😉 I’m very late to Hemingway – I’ve only read this and The Sun Also Rises, which I also loved though I struggled far more with it than this one. I can quite understand why this was your Dad’s favourite – it would certainly be near the top of my own list too, though I couldn’t possibly be unfaithful to my Dickens and Bleak House after all these years of devoted love!.Now I can’t wait to read more of Hemingway, so thanks for the recommendation of Green Hills of Africa – one I haven’t even heard of before, I’m ashamed to say.

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  13. I couldn’t agree more, about everything.

    The narration puts us inside the head of a speaker of American English trying to sort his way through speaking Spanish. Many of the constructions track the different constructions used in the two languages that mean the same thing.

    I reread For Whom The Bell Tolls a year or two ago, after finding a first edition in a huge junk store in Maine, off the beaten path to say the very least. It was priced at perhaps a tenth of its value, so I couldn’t pass it up. When I set into reading it, I couldn’t put it down. And at the end, it was clear to me for the first time that it was both Papa’s best and my favorite of his books.

    Your first-rate review brought it all right back. The Sun Also Rises is a kick, but this is a masterpiece.

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    • The odd thing is that I feel ought to love Steinbeck and really don’t get on with him at all, and I feel I ought to hate Hemingway and yet I love him! I don’t know who controls my mind but I’m pretty sure it’s not me… 😉

      I don’t speak Spanish but I found a lot of what he was doing with the language reminded me of French constructions, especially the thee and you stuff which seemed to mirror the tu and vous usage, so I think that helped me to get in tune with the style. It took a while and I had to gulp a bit at first, but once I got into the swing of it I though he did it wonderfully and it really added to the sense of place. I shall also be looking out for an opportunity to tell someone “I obscenity in your milk” sometime – maybe that should become my Twitter response to trolls. 😉 Definitely I preferred this to The Sun Also Rises, although I loved it in the end too but not without reservations. I’m looking forward to reading more of his stuff, but I can’t see how he could possibly top this one – it will certainly take a place on my list of lifetime greats! The Old Man and the Sea next, I think… 😀

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    • It took me a while to get into it too, and I wasn’t at all sure at first that I was going to enjoy it. But I thought he got a great balance – so often “literary” books forget to have a strong plot, but the plot in this one is great. I can now understand why it’s considered a classic!

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  14. You’ve made me want to re-read this! I remember feeling that the thees and thous added a sense of intimacy and, as you say, a reminder that they are speaking Spanish. It seemed extra romantic to me when I read it at 21! Having read Hemingway’s letters with his editor, I know he was always trying to figure out how to avoid the censor and sneak in swear words.

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    • Yes, once I got into the thees and thous I really felt they added a “foreign” air to the whole thing, and I love men who can write about love about sex without fixating on the mechanics of it all! Haha – I never quite got used to his swearing euphemisms, though I fully intend to use “I obscenity in thy milk!” at every possible opportunity from now on… 😉

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  15. Another convert after a stunning review! I haven’t read or thought much about Hemingway, though the title of this novel has always resonated with me because of Donne’s poem. Time to read this masterpiece, you’ve convinced me that some oddities that would have turned me away from it are part of its genius.

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    • I must say I really expected to dislike Hemingway but I’ve loved both of the ones I’ve read – this one far more than The Sun Also Rises, though. This is actually one BigSister had recommended to me too long ago, so I was doubly glad to love it! I also love Donne’s poem and I think it’s a perfect title for the book. Hope it has the same impact on you as it had on me!

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    • Thank you! I’ve only read The Sun Also Rises which I did grow to love in the end but with reservations. This one worked miles better for me – I can see why it’s the one he seems to be most famous for. Hope it has the same impact on you if you get to it sometime! 😀

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  16. Oh my, I’m sold. I read The Sun Also Rises last year and struggled to determine my reaction to it. But I think I must give Hemingway a fair try and this one is languishing on shelves so I really have no excuse… 🤔 😄

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    • I decided I loved The Sun Also Rises in the end but with some reservations. I found this one much easier to appreciate despite the oddities in the language, and for me the story of this one is much stronger and more emotionally involving. Dust it off and get reading! 😉

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  17. I have this book, too, on my shelves, but have never read it. Long ago, I made the mistake of reading the book of his that was posthumously published, Garden of Eden, and hated it. So I felt like I needed to give Hemingway a pass. But now you make me see that I am, indeed, missing something. Ok, I’ll add it to the pile.

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    • I’ve only read this and The Sun Also Rises which I loved to in the end but with some reservations. This one seems to me to be in a different class – a more interesting story and the characterisation is great (apart from Maria, but she’s fine as love interests go). And despite the stylistic quirks, his writing is wonderful… dust off that copy and get reading! 😀

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  18. Wow, this sounds really powerful. I have a slight interest in books about/dealing with the Spanish Civil War (though I don’t know much about it, really), so this has been on my to-read list, but I simply haven’t gotten around to it. After reading your review, I may have to push it up my list!

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    • Well worth pushing up the list! I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War either but have set myself a challenge of finding out more about this year through both history books and fiction – if you have any recommendations, they’re always welcome! 😀

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  19. Excellent review!! I must say this is the first review I’ve read that actually makes me want to pick up a Hemingway novel. I’ve never read any of his work, but I keep thinking about him, and now I’m really looking forward to picking up this read! I love the quotes that you chose, and think that maybe, just maybe, I might end up liking Hemingway. I’ve always been scared to read him!

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    • Thank you! I’d never read him till a couple of years ago, when I read The Sun Also Rises. Despite having major issues with the way he portrayed his one female character and with the endless descriptions of drinking, I was astonished to find I loved it overall. But this one is even better – it really blew me away. I now can’t wait to read more and think I might have to admit to being a fan… 😀

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