The most difficult thing about reading "The Sun Also Rises" is deciding how you're going to read it. On one hand, it's the story of a mismatched group of friends who descend upon Pamplona, Spain, for the annual bullfights. The friends drink, argue, drink, sight-see, drink, eat, drink, watch the parades, drink, dance, drink...
You get the picture. There's a whole lot of drinking.
As a novel, "The Sun Also Rises" is very good. Ernest Hemingway has a journalist's knack for economical description. Further, the characters are anything but dull.
Narrating the story is Jake Barnes. Jake is close friends with Lady Brett Ashley, an English divorcee and unapologetic libertine. There's a sense that the two might have been lovers, except that Jake suffered a war injury that left him impotent.
Brett defies our typical idea of an early 20th Century woman. She drinks to excess, flirts openly, and has numerous affairs, both in and out of wedlock. She's a woman who likes collecting men, some of whom she doesn't even like.
Brett is engaged to Mike Campbell,
lead guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (sorry. Wrong Mike Campbell.)
Brett is engaged to Mike Campbell, a Scotsman who is of some nobility, though he's recently gone bankrupt.
Jake is an American Paris-based American journalist, a man who enjoys Paris cafe society, as well as some of Europe's more rugged pursuits. In Paris, he plays tennis and hangs out with his old college friend, Robert Cohn, although it's not clear whether Jake actually likes Cohn.
Jake, Cohn, and Bill Gorton--a successful writer and friend of Jake's--are planning to go fishing before heading on to Pamplona for the bullfights. They're supposed to meet Brett and Mike along the way.
As it happens, Brett is ill, so she and Mike stay behind a few days, while Bill and Jake go on to fish. Cohn, having had a few weeks' dalliance with Brett, stays behind, too.
Finally, they're all reunited in Pamplona, just in time for the week long Fiesta.
In Pamplona, things get ugly. Cohn pines after Brett like a lost puppy. Rather than confront him about it, Mike taunts Cohn mercilessly--and using some serious antisemitic slurs--telling Cohn nobody wants him around, and nobody has ever wanted him around.
It's really true, though. Cohn is a constant buzzkill, and his obvious crush on Brett creeps everyone out.
SO, Mike is engaged to Brett, Cohn has just had a three-week romp with her and is smitten, and Jake has loved her forever, though he knows their relationship is impossible (Lady Ashley can live without many things, but sex would not be one of them)
The bullfights are awesome, but essentially irrelevant to the story. The key is the interplay and internecine battles between the characters.
Oh, and Brett goes off and schtupps a hot, 19 year-old bullfighter, then runs off with him after the last day's bullfights are over.
Once the Fiesta is over, the friends head their separate ways. Jake ends up at San Sebastian, where he relaxes: swimming, reading, not being around all the chaos of his friends. One afternoon, he gets a telegram from Brett. She's in Madrid; can he come get her.
Once again, Jake's off to pick up the pieces of the woman he loves, whom somebody else has broken. We leave them, buzzed, riding in a cab to catch the train home.
"The Sun Also Rises" does well as a character study of post-war ex-pats with too much money, too much free time, and too much alcohol. Brett--like Jordan in "The Great Gatsby"--is a symbol of the 1920's new sexual liberation for women, where it was acceptable in certain social groups for women (gasp) to enjoy and seek out sex.
And that's the whole problem: nobody seems to be enjoying life at all. No matter how much they drink, screw, dance, eat, fish, watch bullfights, etc, nothing permeates this haze of ennui.
That's the second way "The Sun Also Rises" works. Hemingway was a member of "The Lost Generation," a large group of expatriate American and British writers who were drawn to Parisian cafe society. There, they drank, smoked, discussed things, screwed, fought, drank more, and--above all--wrote. This novel is a thinly-veiled, slightly fictionalized account of real people and events. Some characters are composites; no doubt, some people and events are completely imagined, too. Nonetheless, this small world is where "The Sun Also Rises" was born.
"The Great Gatsby" showed the post-war ennui in America. "The Sun Also Rises" takes it from another perspective, showing mash-ups of authors like himself and Fitzgerald, and the constant, non-stop, non-happiness-producing drinking these people did.
There's a perfect quote near the end that really nails it--both this novel, and "The Lost Generation" writers:
"I'm rather drunk," Mike said. "I think I'll stay rather drunk. This is all awfully amusing, but it's not too pleasant."
"The Sun Also Rises" captures that perfectly: it's awfully amusing, but not too pleasant.