Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is probably my favorite book, and that’s saying a lot given how much I love Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Well, I guess Hemingway must be my favorite writer, then. I didn’t read any Hemingway until after college, but when I found The Sun Also Rises for cheap at a Half Price Books in Columbus, I figured why not give him a shot? I wasn’t expecting a great read from his first novel—I had read divisive opinions on his writing in the past, and this wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea, which everyone has heard of.
However, about 5 or 10 pages in, I was hooked. His writing style is so unique; like nothing I had ever read before. Not just his story-telling or famed “iceberg theory”, but the way he crafts his sentences was mesmerizing. They’re incredibly short, and straight to the point. He barely uses adjectives, favoring instead to be much more descriptive through noun and verb choice. He can vividly portray an idea, feeling, emotion, or scenery with 3 or 4 staccato sentences—and copious use of the word “and” instead of commas. As a massive fan of all things relating to linguistics, this drew me into his novel before knowing anything about the characters or story other than Robert Cohn was (possibly) a boxer at Princeton.
Then the story began to develop—or rather, what I thought the story was. The main character, Jake (based on Hemingway, as all characters are stand-ins for his real-life friends in this roman à clef), spends his days (barely) working as a reporter for an American newspaper in Paris and his nights in cafés and bars and clubs drinking and dancing and drinking some more. There’s inter-group romance and drama, and the gang plans a trip to Spain to get away from the hustle and bustle of not working in Paris. Jake, always with one or more members of his friend group, is a character with depth. I also think that at least one aspect of him is relatable to most people.
The first, well, many pages of the book are filled with Jake and the gang hanging out in cafés drinking and eating, discussing their lives, gossiping about others’ lives, and giving out advice to each other while planning future group vacations (in this book, a trip to Spain to watch the Bulls). This hits very close to home for most readers, I would wager. Hanging out somewhere over drinks and food, talking, gossiping, and sharing your thoughts and feelings? Sounds like my high school friends and me in my parent’s basement. Sounds like How I Met Your Mother. Sounds like That 70’s Show. Sounds like Friends… You get the picture.
Even though the social setting isn’t unique to The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s descriptions of the discussions, events, and characters are mesmerizing. Especially today, after months of not being able to relax properly with friends and family in the “new normal” (or the phrase everyone hates: “unprecedented times”), this book hits home. We can live vicariously through Jake and Hemingway’s portrayal of his social life. We can holiday to the Basque Country and watch the Running of the Bulls with our new BFFs from the comfort, or prison, of our homes.
Further, one aspect of Hemingway’s writing that engulfs me is his ability to simply but accurately describe a city. Hemingway names and describes every establishment the group visits, and these places are (or were) an actual place that served the exact foods and drinks Jake et al. consume. Taxi and carriage rides, instead of being a way to transport characters from one place to another, are travelogues. You can follow the route Jake takes across Paris from a café to a dancing club on Google Maps (and I have, trust me). Outside of nostalgia for hanging out with friends, you can use the book to take a trip to Paris and Pamplona. From the Café Select in Paris to the Café Iruña in Pamplona, Hemingway lets you escape 2020 and head back to the 1920s—and learn a little Roaring slang along the way.
I really can’t stress enough how infatuating Hemingway’s writing and vivid descriptions are in this book. Some writers describe the scenery in too much detail (looking at you, Tolkien), while others merely mention a setting to focus instead on dialogue (looking at you, too many other novels I read). Hemingway, however, transports you to the sidewalk table at Café Napolitain, sweaty 1920s nightclubs, the Basque countryside, the Hotel Montoya, and more. It’s the same in his other books. Far from being a burden to the story, Hemingway makes these locations a living, breathing character of the story. The dialogues are incredibly interesting as well, and since all sentences are short, they move the story right along (from café to café…). My only gripe with the dialogue is that some conversations between characters can become impossible to follow, with very few “Jake said” or “Robert remarked”—even in page-long discussions. I find myself re-reading a conversation slowly just to track who is saying what. However, a lot of dialogue between Jake and his lover-in-his-dreams Lady Ashley is oddly captivating and I don’t mind reading passages twice.
Even though I love The Sun Also Rises and can’t recommend it highly enough (especially during 2020), I recognize it is not for everybody. First, Hemingway’s style could be a bit dry to people who love thick descriptions dripping with metaphors and similes like a honey dipper freshly pulled out of a jar. Some motifs may be unbearable to people, such as the gang’s affinity with free love (Hemingway was famous for that) and the never-ending drinking that never starts because it never finishes. And the egging-on/peer-pressuring of their friends to drink even if they don’t want to (“have another drink” “no I’m ok” “oh come on” “all right”). Add to this the language used—1920s colloquial speech and slang—and it could be a deal-breaker. The final third of the novel may especially turn readers off, given that it centers on Jake’s (and Hemingway’s) aficionado-love of bullfighting. Finally, one could criticize the story as being slow in the buildup, with what appears to be too many early pages filled with much of the same banter but in a different arrondissement of Paris.
Overall, I highly recommend Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. While not regarded as his magnum opus, it is a beautifully well-crafted book and the perfect read while locked indoors or 6+ feet away from friends. It’s not very long, being only 251 pages, and can be finished in a weekend. Hemingway is one of the most influential writers of modern English literature, and it’s easy to see why even in his debut novel.