Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill

Vaill’s story of three love affairs, set against the Spanish Civil War, yields a nuanced perspective on war journalism and romance.

florida

During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid’s Hotel Florida was a meeting point for war correspondents, press officers and foreign intellectuals. Amanda Vaill (Everybody Was So Young) uses the hotel as a focal point to examine the war through the lives of three men and three women. These six individuals–all leftists of various stripes and pedigrees, converging on Spain from all over Europe and the U.S.–allow Vaill to range freely through the history of the war, which raged from 1936 to 1939.

Vaill follows her subjects chronologically, shifting locations through Francisco Franco’s rebellion against the Popular Front government and the events that led up to the Spanish Civil War. Arturo Barea of Madrid serves as a censor for the Propaganda Department, finding his leftist politics and commitment to truth well matched by his new assistant Ilsa Kulcsar, who comes from an Austrian resistance cell and speaks many languages. Meanwhile, Ernest Hemingway feels stifled in Key West; a new war to cover provides him with an excuse to get away from his wife and find fresh material to revive his stagnant writing. The attractive young journalist he’s just met, Martha Gellhorn, is also eager to get to Spain. Finally, a young man named Endre Friedmann is exuberantly pursuing his passion for photography in Paris when he meets the charming Gerta Pohorylle. They set off for Spain together with their ideals on their sleeves. Taking new names–Robert Capa and Gerda Taro–they will find fame and love and change the face of war photography forever. One of them will die on Spanish soil.

In addition to explaining the complexities of the Spanish Civil War, Hotel Florida lives up to its grand subtitle. Vaill examines the meaning of truth as conceived by each of her six players–writer, journalist, translator, censor, press officer, photographer. Their romances, all born of war, and the deaths to which they bear witness bring emotion and heartbreak. Buttressed by plentiful research, Vaill’s prose exhibits touches of Hemingway’s own writing style and a gift for narrative that keeps Hotel Florida accessible and engaging.


This review originally ran in the April 15, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 ideals.

8 Responses

  1. Hmmm… 8 ideals, and Hemmingway in the mix – yet no further comment for your blog; makes me wonder at the silence.

    • Well gosh, it was just a wonderful read, and honestly I may have enjoyed the five not-Hemingways the best because they were fresher to me; very well done, and an important & fascinating moment in history that is probably undersung as the seed of a world war; how’s that?

  2. I didn’t know that Robert Capa was a nom de camera! Fascinating – I may have to read this sooner instead of later …

  3. “More to learn” is the shortest explanation of most of my nonfiction reading choices. And it’s the random unexpected tidbits that are almost always the most fun …

  4. […] 8s, too, including for example the latest from Stephen King and James Lee Burke; this lovely novel; a little literary history (oh and here’s another); some plants*; and two that are still to come: We Make Beer, and […]

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