Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical
It wasn’t bravery when you did what you had to do.
Paula McLain’s novel, Circling the Sun, was one of my favorites of 2015, largely because she portrayed Beryl Markham so well as a woman who wasn’t content to follow the norms of her times—get married, have children—but who understood that the only way to follow her own path meant the norms would never be an option. McLain is back with Love and Ruin, giving the same gift of layers and nuance to the tumultuous life of Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was a writer of fiction, but more importantly, was one of the most intrepid war correspondents of her time. She was also Ernest Hemingway’s third wife and their relationship is the through line of the novel.
As a young woman Gellhorn’s life was a bit aimless. By age 27 she had traveled extensively and was trying to write a novel, but found that
I ordered cocktails that were far too strong for me, and laughed at things that were desperate, and threw myself hard at experience, by which I mean married men.
When she and her mother go on vacation to Key West in 1937 she meets Hemingway, a hero of hers for his novel A Farewell to Arms. She learns of his interest in going to Spain and reporting on the fight between Franco’s Nationalists and the Spanish Republicans and decides that this is what she has been waiting for—a cause, a reason to write. She gets credentials from Collier’s magazine that allow her to go to the front as a reporter and from there she never looks back. In her personal life, Hemingway pursues her and they begin an affair that culminates in marriage after a protracted divorce from his second wife. She creates a writer’s haven for them in Cuba, where they go when they are not covering war, but as her success increases so does his dissatisfaction with their life.
Love and Ruin spans the seven years of Gellhorn’s life from 1937 to 1944—a time of almost constant global conflict and she covered all of it. She went to places that not only had no woman ever gone, but where no other reporter got in. She was the first correspondent on Omaha Beach. Her strength lay in the fact that, unlike her male counterparts, she was less interested in the machines and strategy of war and more in the people, whether it was the combatants or the civilians caught in its path. She was also a master at using diplomacy and relationships to get the truth in front of people who could make a difference. McLain illustrates this in her dealings with the Roosevelts, especially Eleanor, whom she admired tremendously.
My only problem with Love and Ruin are the Hemingway aspects of the novel. One, there is the cover, about which authors often have no say, but, honestly, putting a man in the forefront of a cover about a strong woman, is a bit infuriating. Two, McLain includes chapters from Hemingway’s point of view. Yes, he was an integral part of Gellhorn’s life, but I didn’t care what he had to say about their relationship. I was reading the novel for her POV, not his. Also, reams of paper have already been spent on him and, as far I can tell, he was a miserable shit of a man who hated women. I never cared for his writing and like him even less off the page.
I had hoped Love and Ruin would showcase Gellhorn to the same degree that Circling the Sun did with Markham, but that didn’t quite happen. The novel is engrossing, with McLain once again vividly encapsulating the events of the times. She deftly captures Gellhorn at a very specific point in her life and illustrates the difficulties of any woman ‘having it all’, but I would have gladly kept reading to learn more about the later exploits and achievements of this fascinating woman. A sequel, maybe?