Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Ali McSherry on A Farewell to Arms

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail
Ali McSherry is a staff writer for Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.
I first read A Farewell to Arms when I was 19. It wasn't ever listed on my school curriculum, but I'd heard so much about the book that I figured I'd have to read it. It just so happened that I picked it up a few weeks after ending a tumultuous relationship with my army boyfriend who had spent much of our relationship hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from me. Reading a book about a romance between a nurse and a soldier who were torn apart by war was really just piling on the pain at this point — or so I thought.

There I was heartbroken, depressed, single yet again, and electing to read a love story set in World War I. Forget moving on and moving forward — I was in the mood to wallow as I turned the pages of Hemingway's classic novel. I soon became enraptured by Henry and Catherine Barkley's tale, swooning over their courtship and surprisingly devouring the battle scenes. Despite my penchant for military men, I never cared much for the theater of war, though Hemingway described it in such exquisite detail that I found myself completely captivated. I carried the book with me everywhere that summer, sneaking in a few pages here and there between babysitting jobs and porch parties with my friends.

While getting swept up in a literary romance so shortly after the demise of my own may have been detrimental to some, it was in fact a blessing to me. I found the characters unbelievably relatable and saw my situation through fresh eyes as I turned each page.

To me, A Farewell to Arms isn't the perfect love story. Sure there is love and loss and drama to boot, but in the end Henry and Catherine were two people alone in the world who got caught up in a situation. There was a war raging in Europe and the rules of the world were changing and these two people were desperate for something stable. They found that in their relationship, no matter how mismatched they may have been. I found their relationship paralleled mine in some ways.

When I first met my military boyfriend I had just transferred colleges and was still navigating the path to adulthood. I was getting used to living away from my family and readjusting my values as an independent adult. While it wasn't a World War, it was a significant period of change and transition in my life. I was craving stability when I met my boyfriend, much like Catherine and Henry were when their paths first crossed.

In the end, A Farewell to Arms helped me get over my heartbreak and introduced me to one of my favorite authors. It has all the ingredients for an over-the-top romance, but Hemingway sprinkled in enough truth to make it real and keep it grounded. I will always love this book for its wonderful story and its pivotal influence on my life. I wish I could re read it again for the first time.

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