Review: Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway


Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 1

Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream was published posthumously and was expurgated by Hemingway’s wife.  A note in the preface states that she removed certain portions of the book which she felt certain that Hemingway would have eliminated himself (which begs the question: Why did he include them in the first place?).  Personally, I cannot stand when books are expurgated, particularly by friends/loved ones or editors who think they “know better” than the author.  That aside, the story is interesting and is much more like his later works, such as Garden of Eden than his earlier works.  This does make me believe that there were probably portions of the book that were rather sensitive and could have been very enlightening, particularly to those familiar with Hemingway and his tragic end.  The story is separated into three parts, including “Bimini”, “Cuba,” and “At Sea.”  Each segment explores a different time period in the main characters life, and also explores different aspects of his life and emotions.  There is one connecting thread throughout the three segments, which is family.  My personal favorite section was “Bimini,” where the main character is visited by his sons and lives with a close male friend.  Their relationship is incredibly interesting, especially considering the homosensual nature of it in contrast to the homophobic comments made by some of the characters (and by Hemingway himself, in real life).  The idea of “manly love” is certainly a main focus in part one, but suffers a bit in the second two segments, which are more concerned with grief/recover and war.

Thomas Hudson, the main character, and his good friend, Roger, are the best developed characters in the book, particularly in part one.  Thomas Hudson continues to develop throughout and his character is interesting to witness, as he struggles to grieve the loss of his loved ones.  Hudson’s sons, too, are delightful – not since Garden of Eden have I seen such lovingly, sincerely drawn characters from Hemingway.  In part two, “Cuba,” Hudson’s true love becomes a part of the story and she, too, is interesting and very similar to the woman in Garden of Eden, which leads me to believe that these two posthumous works might be his most autobiographical of them all.  The minor characters, such as the bartenders, Hudson’s houseboys, and his comrades-in-arms in part three, are all well-crafted, sound, and believable. 

One difference between Islands in the Stream and Hemingway’s other works is in the prose.  It is still raw, but not quite so sparse or bare as usual.  His descriptions are more flushed out, almost tortured at times.  There is a moment in the book where Hudson is fishing with his sons, and it is described in such detail (even better, in my opinion, than in Old Man and the Sea) and with such deep emotion that I actually found myself becoming thrilled and engaged – by fishing. Something I truly dislike.  That is the kind of magic Hemingway works with his words, his language, and his style.  It is brilliant, as usual, but, again, I found myself much more drawn to the first section than any others – it is an exposed nerve.

Personally, I try my very best to separate writers from their works; however, I do believe that, no matter how hard we try, we writers reveal bits of ourselves in our works.  Hemingway is known for his “masculine” prose – his ability to tell a story without much emotion, without much sap, without any flowery nonsense.  This leaves him, throughout most of his chronology, rather walled-off from his works.  In Islands in the Stream, however, as with Garden of Eden, I truly believe we see Hemingway exposed – there is a very sensitive, deeply troubled side to this man and that these books were published only posthumously speaks volumes to his relationship to them.  Islands in the Stream is a delicate exploration of love, loss, family and friendship.  It is a deeply moving tale of a man, an artist, fighting to wake up and live every day, despite his haunting sadness. 

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult

Interest: Family, Loss, Artists/Artistry, Friendship, Sorrow, War

Notable Quotes:

“Out of all the things you could not have there were some that you could have and one of those was to know when you were happy and to enjoy all of it while it was there and it was good” (99). 

“I kept waiting for truth and right to win and then somebody new would knock truth and right right on its ass” (147).

“Hell was not necessarily as it was described by Dante or any other of the great hell-describers, but could be a comfortable, pleasant, and well-loved ship taking you toward a country that you had always sailed for with anticipation” (195).

“He thought that on the ship he could come to some terms with his sorrow, not knowing, yet, that there are no terms to be made with sorrow.  It can be cured by death and it can be blunted or anesthetized by various things. Time is supposed to cure it, too. But if it is cured by anything less than death, the chances are that it was not true sorrow” (195).

“I drink against poverty, dirt, four-hundred-year-old dust, the nose-snot of children, cracked palm fronds, roofs made from hammered tins, the shuffle of untreated syphilis, sewage in the old beds of brooks, lice on the bare necks of infested poultry, scale on the backs of old men’s necks, the smell of old women, and the full blast radio” (241).

“There’s some wonderful crazies out there. You’ll like them” (269).


7 Comments on “Review: Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

  1. I’ve been wondering what title to pick up for my first Hemingway, and I think this might just be the one. Islands in the Stream seems to be a gorgeous book, and I always tend to gravitate towards stories that are about family, friendship, sorrow and artistry.

    Personally, I cannot stand when books are expurgated, particularly by friends/loved ones or editors who think they “know better” than the author.

    Amen. This is why I’ll probably never forgive Charlotte Brontë.


    • Amen. This is why I’ll probably never forgive Charlotte Brontë.

      Me, either.


    • It is a beautiful book – I was particularly moved by the first segment, but I think much of it might come from the fact that I am familiar with Hemingway’s earlier works, which are much more “manly” and sparse. Still, it’s a touching story and surprisingly psychological in many ways. It also rubbed me the wrong way in a few places (Hemingway has never been too nice to women or homosexuals, although women get better treatment in this one). I’m not sure I would recommend this one to a new Hemingway reader, only because it’s so much different from his larger body of work and from what is typically known as “Hemingway” in literary conversations. Most people probably don’t even read this later, poshumous stuff – so it might be a good idea to start with For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, etc.

      I don’t know, it’s impossible for me to say! If you just want an interesting and enjoyable Hemingway, then, yes, this (or Garden of Eden) could be a good one. But if you want a “Hemingway Hemingway” then this is probably not it. One scene in the first portion of this book really demonstrates what I mean – it’s almost Old Man and the Sea reduced from a novella into a 20-ish page segment, but done so much more movingly (in my opinion).

      Anyway – I’m rambling. It’s a beautiful book – read it. 😉


  2. I’ve been wondering the same thing as cbciucci. You seem to be very familiar with Hemingway’s work; where would you recommend starting with reading him? I read A Farewell to Arms in high school, but although I loved reading, I hadn’t yet reached the point that I really enjoyed most of the books I had to read for English classes. Do you recommend re-reading that or starting elsewhere?


    • I’ve read quite a bit of Hemingway, but I wouldn’t call myself an expert – there’s still much more of his work that I haven’t read, yet! That being said, he is interesting in that there is quite an evolution in his style and themes over time. I would say his later works get more personal, more emotional, and, for those reasons, more powerful. If you’re reading it for story – I would guide you toward his later works and/or his short stories, but if you are reading for his craft (he essentially re-created the American Novel and its prose), then some of his early novels are a great place to look.

      My personal favorites are A Farewell to Arms (a re-read could be in order!), The Garden of Eden (late work, published long after his death but incredibly surprising, particularly to those familiar with Hemingway’s works), and now, probably, Islands in the Stream. I also enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls and Old Man and the Sea (though I hated that the first time around, loved it after re-reading it). I did not enjoy The Sun Also Rises so I have yet to try any of his other bull-fighting novels (which are ironically the ones for which he is most famous).

      It might be a good idea to start with a short story collection – The Snows of Kilimanjaro, for instance. Then try Old Man and the Sea. If you crave more, maybe give For Whom the Bell Tolls a shot, or re-read A Farewell to Arms. I don’t want to recommend these later works to anyone who hasn’t read much of the works he published in his lifetime, because they’re an entirely different beast and could spoil and/or color the way we see his larger body of work, particularly the earlier ones for which he is so acclaimed.


      • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response! I think I will start out with a short story collection, like you recommend!


  3. As a Hemingway starter, I recommend A Moveable Feast because it covers a time when he was just getting started as a fiction writer (this was the period in which he made the move from newspaper reporting to fiction). The contents were assembled from his writings during the early 1920’s in Paris. And when I watched “Midnight in Paris”, much of it that dealt with Hemingway jumped out because of having read this book. (I firmly believe that Woody Allen used this book as part of the inspiration for the movie – which I also recommend.)


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