Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (audio)

From the author of The Paris Wife, about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley, comes this novel about his third, Martha Gellhorn. Each novel focuses on the woman first, with Hemingway in a supporting role. This one is told from Gellhorn’s first-person point of view, with very few, brief glimpses into Hemingway’s own perspective – I enjoyed these but I think it was wise to limit them. We follow Gellhorn from young womanhood, early in her writing career, into meeting Hemingway in her 20s – he’s married to Pauline – and into the Spanish Civil War, where Gellhorn finds the talent she will be best known for: she becomes one of the most important war correspondents of the 20th century. The arc of their relationship defines the novel’s timeline, but it is as much the story of the woman. Such a fiery relationship with such a larger-than-life figure as Hemingway does threaten to dominate, but one of the things I love about Gellhorn is that there was so much more to her than this, and I think McLain communicates that.

A little like with The Trespasser, I felt a slowdown in the middle of this book. I’m not sure it’s a criticism of McLain, or simply the fact that Hemingway is a difficult character: mythic, swaggering, enormous, and perhaps difficult to write without becoming a sort of cardboard cut-out who makes dramatic (not to say predictable) pronouncements. I even considered the possibility that I’m a bit sick of him; maybe I’ve read too many fictional treatments of the man. I definitely rolled my eyes at Gellhorn’s hand-wringing and devotion over her selfish, cruel, immature lover, but I had to remind myself that this nonsense is likely perfectly realistic. Which doesn’t make it any easier to sit in.

Whatever that was about, McLain pulled me back. It’s definitely a good strategy, I think, to keep Gellhorn front and center. Along with Hadley, she’s my favorite of Hemingway’s wives; she didn’t entirely take his shit, and had a formidable career of her own. She refused to sublimate, which is why their marriage failed, but it’s why she got to keep herself, too. In the end, I was left feeling really good about this read, although it hadn’t always been easy to take in. Kirkus writes, “Martha comes across as one tough cookie, Ernest as a great writer but a small man,” and well, yes. Welcome to Hemingway.

It’s been a long time since I read The Paris Wife – almost ten years – which I remember loving without reservation. But I suspect I’m a more critical reader now, so I’m not certain at this distance that the first was a better book. Certainly I recommend Love and Ruin for the Hemingway completist, and I think it’s a good overview of the Gellhorn story. Kirkus further writes that “it basically rehashes information and sentiments already available in [Gellhorn’s] own memoir and published letters,” but I don’t know why that has to be such a criticism. Having that information presented in a stylish fictionalization seems like a service, and I found it an enjoyable read.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

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