Hailed as the greatest American novel to come out of World War I, A Farewell to Arms is a close parallel to Hemingway's own experiences as an ambulance driver during the Italian campaigns in the war. Though it is, at heart, a war book -- it is impossible to write about Italy in those years without writing about war -- it is also a love story, a stampeding romance between Henry, a young American ambulance driver and Catherine, a British nurse.
Let me just get this out here up front before continuing: yes, Henry is a bit of an ass, albeit an incredibly masculine and crafty one, and Catherine is a bit snivelly and dotes on Henry for reasons not quite explicable and generally has little character to call her own. It's not news that Hemingway treated his female characters like crap, so let's put it aside, shall we?
The book is divided into five parts; I won't summarize them all here for fear of ruining the story, but suffice it to say that the parts alternate between Henry and Catherine's affair (wooing, falling in love, taking to bed) and Henry's experiences at the front. In the end, I'm not sure which proves more devastating: the horrors of war depicted in the explosions and treachery and general chaos of battles and retreats, or the laborious relationship between two seemingly doomed souls.
As with his other works, Hemingway's ability to capture a time and a place in such excruciating detail make it impossible to leave the world he has depicted, and his descriptions of the physicality of battle and surgery and love and flight are as captivating as his accounts of events themselves. It's not uplifting, but it is mesmerizing and tantalizing all the same; the striking combination of love and war and fight and flight and masculinity and even, yes, the occasional joke proves a fascinating, heartwrenching, terrible, wonderful story.
Note: There's a new edition of the classic out from Scribner this summer that includes all 39 of Hemingway's alternate endings. Apparently the ending was just as difficult to write as it was to read.
A Farewell to Arms | Ernest Hemingway | Scribner | Paperback | 9780684801469 | 336 pages | July 1995 (Originally published 1929) | Buy from an independent near you