An exquisitely written, far-reaching biography that dips into the lives of almost everyone Hemingway encountered during his tumultuous, controversial life. Hendrickson clearly did his research for this novel; it is extensively quoted and cited throughout, with a well-crafted essay on sources at the back. Interestingly, there is little quotation from Hemingway himself in the book, but it actually isn't sorely missed. In fact, it's refreshing to hear about his life from the mouths of others, when so many other biographies tend to hone on in Hemingway's famous, egotistical ranting.
What really made this book a joy to read, though, was the focus on Pilar and Hemingway's sea adventures. There was enough content about his career and his writing that it wasn't overwhelming, but using Hemingway's relationship with his boat as a guide through his life made the chronology interesting and, frankly, beautiful.
The writing was great, almost too poetic for a biography- but it never became purple prose and, as far as I remember, didn't detract at all from the facts of the author's life. In fact, each anecdote centered around that famous boat was both candid and a joy to read. Although Hendricks is much less critical than Mellow in his biography, he similarly refuses to shy away from some of Hemingway's less likeable qualities. (He shoots himself in both legs by accident.)
Admittedly, the organization of the book was a bit of a mystery; it jumped through the years with impunity, leaving me a little lost at points but never seriously confused. That issue cost a little bit of praise, for Hemingway's life was much more ordered than Fitzgerald's. However, Hendricks does warn the reader about this in his introduction, saying:
"[It] isn’t meant to be a Hemingway biography, not in any conventional sense…. …My aim, rather, is to try to lock together the words “Hemingway” and “boat” in the same way that the locked-together and equally American words “DiMaggio” and “bat,” or Satchmo” and “horn,” will quickly mean something in the minds of most people…."
which explains quite a lot about the lack of narrative structure. For this reason, it definitely helps to have a basic knowledge of the chronology of Hemingway's life, which can be pretty easily tracked by whom he is married to at the time, or at least Wikipedia handy in case you get confused. It is not the best biography to start off with for facts on Hemingway.
Alternatively, you can just let go and go with the tide. Without being tethered by a linear chronology, the book flows wonderfully from one passage to another, even as it skips years or decades of his life. Whether you take a strictly scholarly or a pleasure-seeking approach to it, Hemingway's Boat is a great read.