Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

The Opening Line: How Do You Make It Memorable?

OO is for Opening Line

The Opening Line—probably the most important sentence you will write. Unlike the writers of the past, the modern writer in this fast-paced world needs to grab the reader’s attention as quickly as possible or risk losing the reader altogether.

What makes a good opening line?


In all the books I’ve read on the craft of writing, I don’t recall reading about the formula to writing a memorable opening line. If you know it, please do tell.

After analyzing some of my favorite opening lines, there doesn’t seem to be a  common thread that runs through each of them. They are all different. Some are long (A Tale of Two Cities) and some are surprisingly short (A Christmas Carol). What is it about these opening lines that make them so memorable?

My favorite opening lines contained at least one of the following:

• Imagery
• Contrast
• Intrigue
• Unique voice
• Compelling Mental Picture
• Sarcasm
• Shock
• Fear
• Dialogue


“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens


“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.” The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Unique Voice

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Compelling Mental Picture

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder


“Marley was dead, to begin with.” A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


“Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe


And this one comes from our very own Sarah M. Cradit:

“‘All I’m saying is, Deliverance was based on a true story.’” The Storm and the Darkness by Sarah M. Cradit


What do you think makes a good opening line? What is your favorite opening line?

Here is a link to more famous opening lines from Wikiquote.

To see what other A to Z participants are blogging about this month, please click here to link to their blogs.



Who Says You’re Too Old to Pursue Your Dreams?

When it comes to pursuing our dreams, many of us are plagued with doubts. What if I’m not good enough? What if they don’t like me? Do I really have what it takes to succeed? As someone who has discovered her passion later in life (I’m in my 40’s), I have another question pop in my head occasionally.

Am I too old to even try?

I know from the time I’ve spent reading other blogs and conversing with fellow bloggers that I’m not the only one who has this fear. Has opportunity passed us by? Well, I got tired of hearing that worn out excuse replay in my head and did some research to finally put it to rest. It turns out many of history’s greatest achievements were made by those who were middle-aged or older. Here are a few examples: Continue reading Who Says You’re Too Old to Pursue Your Dreams?

Quote of the Week: A Pep Talk for NaNoWriMo Participants

Last night I was regretting my decision to sign up for NaNoWriMo, that’s National Novel Writing Month for those of you who aren’t familiar with the acronym.  It’s an annual event where participants gather online to support each other in writing an entire 50,000 word novel during the month of November. It sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? I started to have reservations about my ability to tackle this seemingly insurmountable task. As the doubts started to creep in, I was visited by several writers far wiser than I will ever be.

Me: What was I thinking? How can I possibly write 50,000 words in thirty days? That’s 1,667 words per day, every day!

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

Me: [looks around the room for the source of the spoken words] Who said that?

A miniature Stephen King, standing less than ten inches tall, appears from behind my laptop.

 Me: Okay, I’m a little freaked out now.

Stephen King: I seem to have that effect on people. It probably has something to do with the fact that I write horror novels. [Whispers and taps his temple] They don’t think I’m right in the head! Anyway, “the scariest moment is always just before you start.”

I blink several times, but tiny Stephen simply leans against my laptop screen and folds his arms across his chest.

Stephen King: [picks at his fingernails] Yeah, I’m still here.

Me: I must be hallucinating. I’ve gone mad.

Cornelia Funke: [whispers in my right ear] “So what? All writers are lunatics!”

I jump at the sound of Cornelia’s voice and turn to see her sitting on my shoulder. She grins and waves.

Me: Uh, hello there, tiny…author…on my…shoulder.

She’s right you know. “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”

I glance behind me to see E.L. Doctorow sitting on the shelf.

Me: [shakes head] This is not happening. I’m not seeing this.

Franz Kafka: [pokes head out from under the lamp shade] It’s a little Kafkaesque, isn’t it? Ha! I’ve always wanted to use that word.

Me: It’s more than surreal. It’s –it’s. That’s it. I’m going insane.

Franz Kafka: Because you’re not writing. “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”

Ray Bradbury: [pops up from inside my coffee cup] “You must stay drunk on writing” –not the crap you’ve got in this mug [wipes hands on shirt] —“so reality cannot destroy you.”

Ernest Hemingway: [scales the side of my desk, strains to pull himself over the edge, walks over to Bradbury, and peeks inside the cup] I’ll drink to that ol’ chap! What does she have in there?   

Me: But I have been writing. Well, at least I was until I started planning for NaNoWriMo. So now I must write 50,000 words in one month. That’s almost an entire book!

George Orwell: [stands on his head on a bookshelf across the room] “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Me: I hadn’t considered demonic possession. I’m likely to suffer nightmares now. Thanks for bringing it up, George. Or shall I call you Eric? And why are you standing on your head, anyway?

George Orwell: “You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up.”

Me: O-kay, but how is that going to help me write?

Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” [Sits at my laptop, pulls up the sleeve of his shirt and dramatically mimics slicing his wrist while falling across the keyboard]

Neil Gaiman: [sits on my notepad] Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Ernie.

Ernest Hemingway: Don’t call me Ernie.

Neil Gaiman: Why? Everyone knows you detest your given name.

Ernest Hemingway: Well, that was before Sesame Street. I’d much rather be “associated with the naïve, even foolish hero of Oscar Wilde’s play” than that muppet with a proclivity for rubber duckies.

Stephen King: [sings] Rubber Duckie, you’re the one. You make bath time so much fun.

Ernest Hemingway: Shut it, Stevie.

Stephen King: [giggles]

Me: Have you ever considered that people think of you when they hear the name Ernest?

Ernest Hemingway: [blushes]. Ahem, uh no.

Neil Gaiman: [turns to me] “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

Stephen King: Gaiman’s right. “When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’ and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”

Me: [laughs] You’re always good for a laugh Mr. King. So how do I start a novel if I don’t have an idea of how it might end?  Don’t I need to begin with the end in mind?

Anne Lamott:  “E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

E.L. Doctorow: I did say that didn’t I? Wise man, I must say, wise man.  

Me: Okay, well I’ve written a story, but it’s crap so it’ll probably never get published.

Ernest Hemingway: Not to worry. “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Me: But it’s still crap after several revisions. I became overly descriptive. When I edited that out, and killed my little darlings, I think I murdered the entire manuscript. My writing voice bled out all over the floor.

Stephen King: [sighs] “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Mark Twain: [walks up and slaps Stephen on the back] Stevie boy is right. Just do what I always did. “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Ernest Hemingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Me: One sentence, huh? Try about five or ten thousand sentences, Mr. Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway: Well, if you didn’t detest my writing so much, maybe you would have learned something.

Me: Actually, I respect your writing style, I just don’t care for some of your characters all that much.

Mark Twain: [Looks admiringly at Hemingway] “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English―it is the modern way and the best way. [Directs his attention to me] Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them―then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

Me: Humph. Maybe that’s why it took me so damn long to write that first book. But thirty days? It’s unsettling to have that deadline looming out there.

Douglas Adams: [runs across my desk] “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Me: [head – desk] Why am I doing this again?

Philip Pullman: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

Me: [feels rejuvenated] I needed that. Can I give you a hug? 

Ursula K. Le Guin: [looks up from my pocket thesaurus] Look, you’re a writer. “A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it.”

Me: I do have an affinity for words. You could call me a logophile, I suppose.

Ursula K. Le Guin: “Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well, they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning the skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.”

Me: You had me at “writers.” Please go on.

Anton Chekhov: [sits on a curtain rod, points to the window] “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Me: [smiles admiringly] Oh, I love that.

Stephen King: I hate to break up the love fest, but you’ve got work to do. “So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day—”

Me: Ahem. Actually, I’ve committed myself to one thousand six-hundred and sixty-seven words a day.

Stephen King: Well you’re screwed. Heh heh. Just kidding. Okay, so you’ve committed yourself to one thousand six-hundred sixty-seven words a day “come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”

Me: Oh, I’ve got plenty of story ideas.     

John Steinbeck: [leans on my copy of Grapes of Wrath] “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen,” and then an entire book like this one here.

Me: Tell me about it. Ideas invade my dreams and wake me up in the middle of the night.

Saul Bellow: That’s wonderful. “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”

Me: I can’t sleep until I acknowledge the voices in my head or at least write the idea down.

Maya Angelou: [caresses the tiny bird cage on my shelf] Ain’t that the truth. That’s because “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Me: But I have so many ideas, which one should I write about for NaNo?

Meg Cabot: “Write the kind of story you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.”

Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Sylvia Plath: “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Ray Bradbury: “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”

Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Stephen King: Or an axe. All wait and no write make Jack a dull boy. Heh heh. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

Friedrich Nietzsche: “All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.”

Neil Gaiman: Well bloody good for you Friedrich. “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.”

Alexandre Dumas: “I have always had more dread of a pen, a bottle of ink, and a sheet of paper than of a sword or pistol.”

Me: [shakes head and sighs deeply] You call this helping? You guys are supposed to be giving me a pep talk.

Neil Gaiman: [looks at me apologetically] Sorry. “Just make good art.”

Me: But how will I know if I’ve created good art? 

Kurt Vonnegut: “If you want to really hurt you parents—”

Me: What? No! How did the subject of my parents enter into this conversation?

Kurt Vonnegut: [ignores me] “And you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”

Me: Huh?

Kurt Vonnegut: “I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Me: But how can I make good art if I don’t have any formal training in writing? Critics will crucify me.

Ernest Hemingway: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

Neil Gaiman: “I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”

Stephen King: “A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.”

Me: Okay, I have a plethora of scars and a decent memory. Are there any rules I should follow?

W. Somerset Maugham: I’ve heard “there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Me:  Well, you’re a lot of help, William.

W. Somerset Maugham: Just Dubya, please.

Me: Dubya? Really? Do you – oh never mind.

Ernest Hemingway: “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

Me: Oh fabulous. So now I need dynamite. Lovely bit of advice there, Ernest.

Ernest Hemingway: [retrieves a bottle from inside his vest and takes a swig] It can drive you to drinking.

Me: Okay, so what should I do if I get writer’s block? I’ve only got thirty, as in 3-0, days, and if I fall behind I’m toast.

Steve Martin: Ah! “Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.”

Ernest Hemingway: I frequently had writer’s block. [raises his bottle in a mock toast and winks]

Stephen King: [glares at Hemingway] I get writer’s block too. It sucks. [grabs the bottle from Hemingway and turns it upside down to pour out the remaining contents, but it’s empty]

Ernest Hemingway: [shrugs his shoulders] I did you a favor ol’ chap. Don’t want to wrestle those demons again, do you?  

Stephen King: [ignores Hemingway and directs his attention to me] Here’s what you need to do. “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

Me: Okay, so I guess I need some privacy. How did all of you get in here, anyway?

Neil Gaiman: “Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.”

Me: [glances at each of the tiny inhabitants in my room] Ah, of course. It all makes sense now. A writer inserts a little bit of himself into every book he writes. In that way, a writer becomes immortal because his words live on in the hearts and minds of the readers who relish his words for generations to come.

Neil Gaiman: Precisely.

Stephen King: “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Ernest Hemingway: [pulls another bottle from his vest pocket and passes it to me] Let’s have a drink!

Stephen King: [glares at Hemingway] I wasn’t talking about alcohol, Ernie. It’s a metaphor. I didn’t think I’d have to spell it out for you, Mr. [makes air quotes] “Iceberg Theory.”

Me: [reaches for the bottle] I think I need a drink. A little bravery tonic might help me through this ordeal.  

Kurt Vonnegut: [sighs deeply] “So it goes.”

J.R.R. Tolkien: [intercepts the bottle and looks at me admonishingly] “It’s the job that’s never started that takes longest to finish.” [Smiles] Remember, “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Me: [sits down to write] Indeed.

Good luck to everyone participating in NaNoWriMo this month! If you want to be my buddy on NaNoWriMo, I’m pretty easy to find. I’m listed as Melissa Janda.

Now, ready, set, WRITE!


Book Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsBook Review: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Published: 1929

Modern Library Ranking: 74

Book Description: The best American novel to emerge from World War I, A Farewell to Arms is the unforgettable story of an American ambulance driver on the Italian front and his passion for a beautiful English nurse. Hemingway’s frank portrayal of the love between Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley, caught in the inexorable sweep of war, glows with an intensity unrivaled in modern literature, while his description of the German attack on Caporetto—of lines of fired men marching in the rain, hungry, weary, and demoralized—is one of the greatest moments in literary history. A story of love and pain, of loyalty and desertion, A Farewell to Arms, written when he was thirty years old, represents a new romanticism for Hemingway.

Okay, that wasn’t exactly my reaction to the ending of the book, but when I saw this scene in the movie, Silver Linings Playbook, I had to laugh. I could relate to his reaction, and although I didn’t break any windows or utter any profanities (okay maybe one or two), I do believe I tossed the book aside. I don’t need a happily ever after to enjoy a book, but this is what the author makes you crave while you’re experiencing an otherwise hopeless world, where war and death are commonplace. If you’re looking for a happy ending, you won’t get that from Hemingway. His books depict the real rather than the ideal. War is not glamorous. Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Death is inevitable. Often we read to escape that reality, and that’s where the disappointment comes from. We want to believe that it was all worth it somehow.

I’ve been reading, or rereading, books on the Modern Library Top 100 list to see what I could learn from these highly praised works. What did I learn from reading this book? Here are a few writing “rules” that came to mind:

  • Hook the reader with the first line.

1st sentence: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”

No, it’s not particularly engaging, but I kept reading as the next rule came to mind.

  • Avoid slow beginnings. Starting a book with too much pedestrian detail will lose the reader.

On the surface, the beginning appeared quite pedestrian, and it seemed so until I finished the book. If you know anything about Hemingway’s style, much of the meaning of what he writes lies beneath the surface. I reread the opening paragraph, and it took on a different meaning for me.

It describes a scene where troops are marching down a road. The only evidence that remains after they have passed is the dust that powders the leaves and trunks of the trees. Like the movement of the troops on the dusty road, our lives are temporary, and after we pass, the only thing that remains is the dust we leave behind; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’m not sure if this is the meaning Hemingway intended to convey but this is how I view it. The opening paragraph is hauntingly poetic to me now. Here is the rest of it:

“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

  • Use inconspicuous dialogue tags like “said” and “asked” only when necessary.

I don’t recall seeing any dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked,” and for the most part, Hemingway avoided dialogue tags altogether. It was confusing, at times, to determine who was speaking and I had to reread a passage.

  • Don’t use phonetic spelling to convey racial or cultural dialects. The oddly spelled words can be distracting to the reader.

The skill with which Hemingway uses the context of speech, a peculiar turn of phrase, those idioms indicative of a particular culture, allows the reader to hear the words as if they were spelled phonetically. As I stated above, he frequently omits dialogue tags, but his use of dialogue, for the most part, makes it unnecessary. One can learn a lot from studying Hemingway’s use of dialogue.

  • Create characters that are likable. The protagonist is a character the reader should empathize with. The emotional attachment is what keeps the reader interested in the story.

Initially, I viewed the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, as a self-absorbed womanizer. What led me to these initial reactions? Here is what he thought about Catherine:

“I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her. This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.” Then, in this same scene he tells her, “But I do love you.”

What a snake. I didn’t feel sorry for Catherine, though. She was a pathetic character who fawned over Frederic and didn’t have a life or thought of her own. She seemed desperate for someone to love and would become whatever he wanted.

“There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.”

“You’re my religion. You’re all I’ve got.”

I wanted to puke. I had a hard time empathizing with these characters. But, as usual with Hemingway, all is not what it seems. Frederic is an ambulance driver who risks his life to help the wounded. Pretty noble, eh? He actually does fall in love with Catherine and the way I initially viewed him changed. He was no longer a player in those early scenes, but someone who wanted to remain numb, unfeeling among the atrocities of war, suppressing his emotions with alcohol and meaningless sex.

As for Catherine, her actions contradicted her words. She did have a mind of her own. She left the safety of her home country to aid wounded soldiers at the front. She did this to honor her fiance who was killed in the war. She was independent and courageous. Like Frederic, she put herself in harm’s way for the welfare of others. I no longer viewed her as a pathetic character but as someone who was desperately trying to deal with grief.

Although I believe I came to understand their actions, I never developed a deep emotional attachment for the characters.

My favorite quotes both appear on page 249:

“I know the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started.”

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

This seems to be describing the contrast between dreams and reality. What are the things we dream of? Peace, security, love? Does our world allow those things to exist? Frederic and Catherine find solace in each other’s arms, but can love exist among the atrocities of war? Maybe the answer lies in the book’s title.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


“The first draft of anything is shit.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Hemingwaysun1I was comforted by those words as I started to revise my manuscript. See. You’re not that bad. Even the greats admit to serving up some real crap. I read The Sun Also Rises a few months ago and was left wondering how often Hemingway took his own advice. It seems to me that the book could have used another round of edits. {GASP!}

There, I said it. I just lambasted one of the greats of American literature. I had a hard time reading it.

Why, you ask? Well, for several reasons. The following “rules” kept swirling in my head, rules that Hemingway obviously didn’t care for.

Hook the reader with the first line.

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

What do you think? Were you hooked? I wasn’t. What kept me reading was that it was written by Hemingway.

Don’t introduce too many characters too quickly.

There were so many characters introduced at the beginning and with little or no distinguishing characteristics I kept getting them confused. I had to reread passages just to get them straight in my head. My view of many of the male characters was fuzzy at best. Wait, which guy is Brett? Oh that’s right, Brett is a female, Lady Brett. Well, then who is Lady Ashley? Oh…Lady Brett Ashley. After my initial confusion she became quite clear in my head, though, which leads me to the next rule.

Create characters that are likeable, characters that readers will root for (or at least one, please).

Yeah, I know we don’t have to like all the characters in a book. The antagonist is one we love to hate but you need at least one character to root for and I tried. I really tried but I found them all to be self-absorbed. The friendships, if you can call them that, were superficial, even two-faced. I hoped for some wonderful character arc, at least for the main character, Jake Barnes, but by the end of the book I was left disappointed.

Brett was, for lack of a better word, a “ho.” She claimed to love Jake but flaunted her relationships with other men in his face, even enlisting his help in “hooking up” with a bullfighter. She was incredibly vain, and used the poor schmucks around her to feed her own vanity. They were fawning all over her when they should’ve kicked her to the curb. What was Hemingway saying about the male population? As long as a woman is beautiful and “built like the hull of a boat” (Hemingway’s words, not mine), then she could be utterly despicable. They’d keep following on her heels like a lovesick puppy.

Set the right pace to keep the readers engaged in the story.

My mind kept wandering. Was this book ever going to go anywhere? There were points where I lost myself in the story because I was expecting something. I started to get interested around page 112. I remember, because I took note of the page and thought, “Here we go. This is where it’s going to get good.”

At this point in the book Jake is going fishing with a buddy and that’s all that really happens. Have you ever been fishing? It can be thrilling if the fish are biting or excruciatingly mundane if they aren’t. Cast. Wait. Wait some more. Reel it in. Repeat.  I might find it relaxing if it weren’t for the anticipation of catching a big fish, any fish really. You might start drinking to fight the boredom. And that’s precisely what the characters did. They drank…A LOT. Maybe they were bored, too? I imagined them saying, “Hemingway, I say ol’ chap, give us something interesting to do!”

So Hemingway broke a few rules, but I suppose he accomplished what he set out to do and that is worth some praise. The theme of the story is the destructive nature of war, and not just that which can be seen by war-torn cities and lost lives but the emotional effects on those that survive. It wasn’t meant to be a “feel good” story. War is often romanticized, portrayed as the ultimate display of masculinity with acts of heroism and bravery. But Hemingway’s story reveals it as a lie as he shows that war is emasculating in more ways than one.

It’s a story about the Lost Generation; those poor souls left to pick up the pieces of a broken life after World War I. Trust, honor, decency, and morality have all been upended.  Their aimless wanderings, superficial relationships, and propensity to drink to excess speaks volumes about the effects of war. When you’ve been through something so horrendous how do you find meaning in anything?

The following quotes hinted that the characters were aware of the lack of purpose in their lives and left me hopeful for some bright spot at the ending.

“Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”

“Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”

Maybe Brett would change her ways or Jake would have a Rhett Butler moment and tell Brett where to go but sadly that didn’t happen. While the ending dialogue is in the context of the relationship between Brett and Jake it hints at a broader range: humanity. The acceptance of the things as they are left me feeling utterly hopeless and I guess that’s why it didn’t appeal to me. I believe there is always hope.

3 out of 5 stars. Although I liked parts of the book and can appreciate the message I believe Hemingway was trying to convey, it was just okay.

I’ve been reading the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels to see what I can learn from the masters of literature and this one was on the list. So what did I learn from reading this book?

  • The masters broke the rules and still managed to create art that is highly praised.
  • I’m no Hemingway so I should probably stick to the rules if I don’t want readers to toss my book after the first sentence.
  • No matter how well written a book is, not everyone is going to love it.
  • You can appreciate the literary merits of a book and still not like the story.
  • I’ll probably never drink absinthe. Apparently it tastes like black licorice which is at the top of my list of the most disgusting things I’ve ever tasted.