Ernest Hemingway (that's him on the left) brings his real-life experience as an Italian ambulance driver in WWI to life in A Farewell to Arms, a bittersweet story about love and war. Frederic Henry (we don't even find out his name until page 84!) is an American fighting with the Italians in the mountains of Italy. His doctor friend Rinaldi introduces him to Catherine Barkley, a British war aide, and they immediately fall in love. When Henry is wounded in the leg by shrapnel during an attack, he is sent away from the front for convalescence, and Catherine is there to help him after the knee surgery. She becomes pregnant with his child, but refuses to marry him, insisting that they are already married to each other in spirit.
When Henry recovers and is sent back to the front, the Italian war effort is weakening. During a retreat from the Austrians and Germans, Henry becomes separated from his unit (he is a lieutenant). When the Italian army begins to turn on itself and starts assassinating its officers for 'deserting their units' out of fear that the Germans have infiltrated their army, Henry escapes the firing squad, deserts the army, finds Catherine, and they take off for neutral Switzerland by boat, where they remain happily awaiting the birth of their child. Unfortunately, Catherine and the baby both die in childbirth, and Henry is left alone.
I did not expect to like this book. In fact, I was fully prepared to hate every page for the reasons I elucidated in my last posting about Hemingway. That being said, I was completely shocked and awed by how good this book was. It wasn't the most upbeat story in the world, but what it lacked in a happy ending, it made up for in momentum. It just rolled downhill like a rock, and like I said last night, I could not stop reading. I just knew there was going to be a bad ending, though. It's foreshadowed throughout the entire book. It feels like we spend nine months in the autumn/winter rain and cold; I was at a loss to remember any time in the book where it was sunny. Many characters close to Henry die or get hurt, and he ruminates often on death and what it means, which makes complete sense in a novel about war.
I was also shocked about how much drinking went on in this novel. Wine, vermouth, whiskey, you name it. Nurses sneaking alcohol up to patients in the hospital? Catherine drinking during her entire pregnancy? Ambulance drivers and soldiers drinking? Seriously, people! I guess Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and DWI's weren't hot topics back in the 1910's. As I mentioned in my last posting, I was also not pleased with Hemingway's wimpy female characters, except maybe Fergy, who really gave it to Henry about getting Catherine pregnant. While I can appreciate the role of women back in that era, it makes me very glad those days are over.
A great book and one I am glad that I read.