Despite knowing a lot about Hemingway, I have not ever taken the chance to read any of his books. I live in Milan, and have many times walked past the building where Hemingway stayed while recovering from his wounds. It was here in Milan that Hemingway began writing A Farewell to Arms, and perhaps hoping to learn more about his life in Italy, I finally picked up a print copy at the local store.
Given Hemingway’s reputation, I expected a huge war story as sold by an uber-manly hero. What I got was the quiet and oftentimes undignified romance between Frederic Henry and Nurse Catherine Barkley. The scene where she slaps Henry for attempting to kiss her is probably one of the best in the book for me. Henry later gets to kiss her anyway, but when she tries to apologize, I love that he says, “You were right to do it.”
Cat has her reasons for not wanting to fall for another soldier, and yet it’s clear that she and Frederic are perfect for each other. So even though she’s reluctant to be courted at first, once Frederic begins his efforts in earnest, she goes along for the romance, even if she doesn’t feel ready for it.
In between moments of their budding relationships are brief scenes of a war that doesn’t seem very grand or romantic at all. When Frederic is injured, everyone else tells him he ought to make up a story about what really happened, to get a better medal. But Henry is an unassuming guy, someone with a great deal more humility than I’d been expecting.
Although there’s not much similarity, I found myself most often comparing this story to the movie version of M.A.S.H. Certainly Frederic reminds me often of Hawkeye, and the constant references to alcohol reminds me of the way the doctors of the 4077th used liquor to numb themselves to their surroundings. Catherine and Frederic drink a lot, but given the world they live in, they have good reasons for seeking a filter from their present reality.
The ending, without giving spoilers, is very tragic, and even though I saw this coming about halfway through the book, I still got moist eyes in the final pages.
I’m giving A Farewell to Arms 4 stars. It’s a quiet book that kept me pulled in with characters who are easy to relate to, and who make me hope for a better ending. While I like Frederic, I really loved Catherine, and I think she has some of the best quips in the book. She had me reading just to know more about her, and not really caring that there was a war on. And I have to respect a story like that, where I love the characters so much that I don’t even care where the story is going. I’m just happy to be spending time with these people. A Highly enjoyable read, and I’m glad I took the chance to pick up something old, just because it was there.