Love and Ruin: A Novel
Martha Gellhorn had, in so many words, one hell of a life. The daughter of a respected doctor and a well-known suffragette, she bucked social expectations and became a gutsy, daring reporter of topics that women were rarely allowed to report upon at the time, from the effects of America’s depression on the rest of the world to the horrors of Dachau post-liberation. She was mainly known for her war correspondence; the only female reporter on the ground at the Normandy Beaches (and this only because she stowed away aboard an aircraft carrier and impersonated a stretcher bearer) and completely without press credentials, Gellhorn went on to report on every single major international conflict during her lifetime from World War II to the US invasion of Panama.
Her personal life was pretty interesting as well. A conscientious but critical and impatient step and adopted mother who professed to have no maternal instincts and eventually abandoned her adopted son with relatives, a wife who would not set aside her love of the field for her novelist husband, a good friend with no sense of nostalgia, Gellhorn was a complicated, intelligent woman who loved, but was practical and too adventuresome to be tied down to anything traditional. Paula McLain, who beautifully chronicled the life of Hemmingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife and breathlessly recounted the times of pioneering pilot Beryl Markham with Circling the Sun, seems a natural choice to write about a smart trailblazer like Martha. But I’m saddened to report that McLain’s lovely accurate-to-the-person’s-speaking-voice prose is at constant battle with something vital – a failure to translate out something vital of who, at the core, Martha Gellhorn was.
Perhaps focusing on the marriage to Hemmingway was a bad idea for in the end, for theirs is a story of escape and escapism and is filled with a sense of wrongness and doom. Meeting during a trip by Gellhorn to the Florida Keys – where Hemmingway was living with his two sons and second wife Pauline – the two initially don’t think much of one another. But when Hemmingway is immensely instrumental in Gellhorn’s entry to Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, where she witnesses multiple atrocities and moments of human strength and fragility, a friendship is formed. Under the echo of bombs and while touring the country, she and Hemmingway become lovers. They return from the war to settle into Hemmingway’s favorite residence in Cuba, which Martha refurbishes and turns into a perfect idyll for them in spite of her fear that he’ll leave her in favor of staying with Pauline. Eventually Gelhorn and Hemmingway marry, but the brewing war in Europe soon begins to drag them apart. When her passionately pro-interventionist sensibilities and ambition clash with Ernest’s belief in isolationism and his need for a housewife instead of a writer, things fall apart. The death blow involves his subsuming her assignment to report on the war and blocking her entry into France; she defies him and enters the country via dangerous ocean voyage – and tells that the marriage is over.
While this fictionalized version of them has a certain Bogie and Bacall brio and a banter that feels quite in character, they want fundamentally different things from life from the start, and one can see the cracks forming even at the best of times. McLain is smart to make note of this, to point out that the false joy in which they live cannot be sustained, but at the same time she wallows in their boating trips, in loggerhead turtles, in their continued fantasy of having a daughter when Gellhorn was never that kind of dreamy-eyed romantic. She always seemed to consider the union something of a footnote to her life and hated having her experiences as a human reduced to her being the ‘wife of’. To laser-focus in on this time in the woman’s life is to give the short shrift to important events that happen during the same time period – Gellhorn’s presence in Normandy is skimmed over with four pages at the end of the book, and her post-Hemmingway life, unlike Hadley’s in The Paris Wife, is skipped. Having her say on the second page that she tried to pattern herself on one of Hemmingway’s heroines, for instance, does Gellhorn an amazing disservice. Instead, we receive long bittersweet domestic interludes that are well written yet completely unnecessary to the story.
The frustrating thing is that, in other ways, McLain gets Gellhorn painfully right, capturing her love of reporting, of the written word, of travel and adventure (the travelogues provide some of the book’s sharpest moments), her deep dive into politics, her strong opinions, her temporarily frustrated hopes of becoming a writer of fiction and her hatred and resentment of the press, which characterized her as a scarlet woman. Her close relationship with her mother, her ambivalent relationship with romance and her frustrated hero worship of her father are equally well done, and in her general prose, the author manages to capture Gellhorn’s way of writing and speaking perfectly. When she retells Martha’s battle to get to Spain in the middle of the civil war in spite of her mother’s protests and with Hemmingway’s assistance, that felt like the true Martha coming out. Just as strong is her portrayal of life behind the battle lines of the war, of the depravation, depravity, her experience with the lost expatriates and jittery fear living under fear of enemy fire. There are wonderful moments that explore her friendships with Lillian Hellman, Dos Passos and other members of the literary hoi polloi.
When McLain keeps strong to the written record, she soars; when she must invent a reason for making the romance between these briefly-mated opposites compelling, she sinks. Was Gellhorn really thinking of Hemmingway while she was on the beach dodging bombs? It’s unlikely. She already had a lover by then. But McLain expunges this fact from the record, and sadly, it weakens the book overall. Yet her compelling drama, her beautiful word-pictures, her emulation of tone; all of these things shine beautifully. The degree to which you enjoy Love and Ruin will most likely depend on how much dramatic license you’re prepared to allow in a piece of biographical fiction. The author takes a few too many liberties here for my taste, but your mileage may vary.