Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
Paula McLain thought she had Ernest Hemingway out of her system after writing The Paris Wife, about the writer’s life in Paris, his first marriage, and his years in Toronto. She set him aside while writing Circling the Sun, a wonderful novel inspired by the life of aviator Beryl Markham. But Hemingway wouldn’t let her go, so we have a new novel Love and Ruin, about the years that Hemingway lived with Martha Gellhorn, from their meeting during the Spanish Civil War until their separation toward the end of the Second World War.
Martha Gellhorn hit New York City when she was a young woman, and found it a place where “none of these marvelous people expected anything of me. I could be whomever I chose.” She would find the same freedom in Paris.
Anyone of my generation probably has a reasonable amount of knowledge about both Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, though we may have forgotten the details. I rather envy the young people who are more likely to find this novel fresh and full of discoveries.
Martha Gellhorn was a young writer and journalist, well educated, and at the beginning of her career when she met Ernest Hemingway, while on a family holiday in Key West. He was 8 years her senior and already a well-known writer. She is flattered by his attention and he is attracted by her youth and beauty, and by her intelligence. They both have assignments writing about the escalating Spanish Civil War, and meet again in Europe. This part of the novel, the days spend in Madrid as the fighting comes ever closer, is riveting.
As the story moves forward, the back story of the lives of the characters is revealed, Martha Gellhorn’s time working for FERA, meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt, and following the story of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. As the relationship between Gellhorn and Hemingway becomes one of commitment, he removes himself from his marriage (his second) and they make a life together in Cuba.
During this time Martha Gellhorn accepts an assignment in Finland, another strong part of the novel, as she writes about the Russo-Franco War. Martha Gellhorn was one of very few American female journalists in Europe at this time, and she was often the only woman to travel deep into zones of conflict. The stories she filed revealed the hardships and bravery of the citizens, as well as the facts of the military action.
During all of this time Hemingway is writing his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. And, as well as her magazine pieces, Gellhorn is also writing fiction, but to far less acclaim than her famous partner. They marry in 1940 – days after his divorce – and find they are the celebrity couple of the day. Heady and exciting at first, it soon becomes more a hardship and it is very hard on their relationship.
Gellhorn is offered an assignment in China. Their separation while she was in Finland was difficult for Hemingway so it is decided that her will come to China as well. A mistake for Gellhorn - “I was Gellhorn before I knew him. I had to be that now before I was his wife, or anything else for that matter”. As much as she loves Hemingway she begins to resent his attitude of superiority and her lack of freedom.
They had built an idyllic existence in Cuba, two writers living and writing together. They had weathered Hemingway’s divorce from his second wife, and Hemingway’s three sons had developed a close relationship with Martha Gellhorn; but there was growing conflict and they were moving from being a team to being competitors as Gellhorn’s reputation as a journalist grew. She needed travel and work of her own, as much as she needed Hemingway, perhaps more. He needed an adoring wife. Full stop.
After the bombing of Pear Harbor, with America in the war, Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, separately, make their way to Europe. Martha Gellhorn landing on Omaha Beach with the troops, and continuing to make her way through Europe submitting stories to Colliers, until the end of the war when she reported Dachau and Bergen Belsen. By now (should I say, of course?) Hemmingway had found a new woman – and Martha Gellhorn has well and truly made her reputation as a journalist known to all.