A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This novel is set in Italy during World War I. The protagonist, Frederic Henry (like Hemingway, himself) volunteered to drive an ambulance in Italy during the war. The story is informed by, if not based upon, Hemingway’s personal experiences. Central to the story is a romance between Henry and a British nurse named Catherine Barkley. Their tentative flirtations deepen when Henry is wounded and spends a considerable amount of time at the hospital while recuperating. Barkley becomes pregnant with Henry’s child in the middle of the war. Henry returns to service for only a short time before he finds himself in the midst of a chaotic retreat from the swift advance of the Austrians and Germans. This retreat continues to go sour for Henry, leading to a flight for his life as he attempts to get back to Catherine so that he can get them both (plus the unborn child) to safety.
There’s a [variously-attributed] quote about war being: “long periods of interminable boredom punctuated by sheer terror.” This book captures that feel, but even during the moments of quiet from the opening through Henry’s rehab to the weeks hiding out in the Swiss mountains, Hemingway keeps the story engaging by shining a light into the protagonist’s psychology – and, occasionally, through wit. Then there are the thrilling moments like the shelling that wounds Henry or his various narrow escapes.
I found this book to be highly engaging. It has some beautiful language, exemplified by the famously well-composed opening paragraph, mixed with the taut suspense of life in a war zone. If you’re interested in war stories or classic American literature, it’s a must-read.
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