In Which My Wife Reviews One of my Favorite Novels

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“So what’s the deal with Catherine Barkley?  Seriously.”

A Farewell to Arms is the story of an American ambulance driver, Frederic Henry (Henry), who volunteers for the Italian army during World War I.  During this time, he makes a lot of acquaintances, drinks a lot of whatever he can get his hands on, is wounded in battle and meets a woman.
Why did he volunteer for the war?  He is a lonely adventure-seeker that happens to be very calm during major conflict.   He is essentially perfect for the job.  No attachments, few opinions, little need for attention.  By volunteering, perhaps Henry is seeking out connections with other humans that he has not been able to establish in America.  Or, perhaps he is running away from American connections he wishes he had never made in the first place.  

The joy of this book is in the characters that float in and out of Henry’s life–the priest, Rinaldi, Count Greffi, Dr. Valentini.  It is interesting (and telling) how Henry only makes real conversation with these people.  They are the ones he knows will require zero long -term commitment of time, emotion or thought.  They are his emotional drive-thru- pull up, get your fix, breeze away. 

So, what’s the deal with Catherine Barkley?  Seriously. WTF?  While the other characters that manage to get remotely close to Henry are an emotional drive-thru, Catherine is an emotional vampire.  She feeds on men (her dead fiancé, Rinaldi, Henry) until they die, lose interest or until she keels over from some super-crazy hemorrhaging.  If I itemize all of the shocking and annoying things that bother me about Catherine, this blog would be pages long.  It took me to 4 months to finish this relatively reader-friendly novel.  Want to know why?  Every time I read a Catherine section, I had to put the damn thing down and reconsider finishing the book at all.  Just to prove a point, here is my top three list of nausea-inducing Catherine moments:

1) Her continuous insistence that she is a good girl and subsequent questioning of Henry about whether or not she is, in fact, a good girl.  This shouldn’t ever be a topic for discussion considering Catherine is not a girl, but a grown-ass woman.  The little-girl “sixteen-going-on-seventeen” act is clearly a put-on and monstrously obnoxious. 
2) Catherine’s drinking during her pregnancy because the doctor told her it would “keep the baby small.”  Her small hips just would not be able to stand birthing a large (non-intoxicated) baby.  Could all of that alcohol in her system perhaps lead to her blood not clotting during childbirth, therefore causing excessive hemorrhaging after surgery?  Huh. I realize that this was a different time.  Back then, women smoked and drank during pregnancy.  Today, pregnant women are CRAZY sensitive about what they ingest.  Intellectually, I understand.  My mother-bear instincts, however, can’t comprehend Catherine’s lack of care about her baby and urgent need to make the whole pregnancy as convenient for Henry as possible.  Yuck.

3) Catherine’s possessive nature.  This is apparent throughout, but is most clearly displayed when she accompanies Henry and several other people to the horse track.  She sulks the whole time until finally drawing Henry away from the rest of the group so she can discuss how much she would rather be alone with him.  At all times.  No group outings.  Ever.  Wow, Catherine is a load of fun.

I’ll wrap up the Catherine bashing with the following analysis:  Catherine is Hemingway’s depiction of what every man thinks he wants but would quickly grow bored of in real life—a doormat who is a little bit of a slut (but would never admit it) with long blonde hair and a nice set of gams.  Catherine is a static cardboard cutout that any real woman could easily eat for breakfast.

Now that I have that out of my system, I actually enjoyed the hell out of this book.  The stories from the front and the intimate discussions that Henry has with the intensely engaging minor characters (the priest, Rinaldi, Count Greffi, etc.) are gripping.  I especially enjoyed Henry’s journey from his last trip to the front to his escape to Milan.  His train ride on top of the guns (after he smashes his head on them) is vivid, engrossing and, as my husband would put it, unputdownable.  Unfortunately, Hemmingway’s need to create one of the most vapid and unsympathetic characters I have ever had the displeasure of encountering, forces me to put this book in the “really glad I read it, don’t want to touch it again” pile.  It kind of breaks my heart. 

If that guy that released the “no bad words” version of Huck Finn ever gets around to cutting out all of Catherine’s dialogue from A Farewell to Arms, I’d really like to read it.  I would have to borrow it from someone else, of course.  I could never give that Huck Finn guy money. 

Farewell Haiku

Italy Raining
Muddy war.  Vermouth.  Brandy!
Hemorrhage all day long.

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