This is a war novel. But it's more than that. It's also a novel about the wars that rage inside each of us, and it's this that makes what is arguably Ernest Hemingway's finest book a classic for the ages.
American Robert Jordan is a college professor turned antifascist, who takes a year's leave of absence to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The book opens in June 1937 when Jordan is assigned the task of blowing up a bridge deep in the mountains of Spain. He meets up with a guerrilla band of Spaniards who are fighting insurrectionists led by General Francisco Franco. The book takes place over four days during the planning, plotting, and detonation of the bridge. During that time, Jordan meets 19-year-old Maria, who is also a tragic victim of the civil war, and they fall passionately in love.
While there are many detailed descriptions of mass murder, rape, mutilation, bloodshed, and carnage, these are told as part of the recollections of this motley crew of antifascists as they share their stories with the American stranger who has come to live and work with them. As difficult as these stories are to read, therein lies the genius of Hemingway's writing. The scenes are so vividly told that the reader is placed right in the middle of the war—with all the powerful sights, sounds, and scents popping off the page.
This is not an easy novel to read. The violence is both sickening and numbing, but just as I think I can't take it any longer, the story shifts to focus on something else, be it love, sex, dreams of the future, or regrets of the past.
But know this: A lot of the novel of it is a total slog to get through. Much of it is just plain boring and longwinded. For example, there is an entire chapter on the smell of death, as in a debate on whether you can smell that someone will soon die.
I won't ever classify this as a favorite book, but it is an important book. I think of it this way: If I call myself a reader, then I need to have read "For Whom the Bell Tolls."