“Ernest Hemingway changed my life,” Paula McLain said at a recent meet-and-greet at The Spoke Club in Toronto. McLain’s books are intrigued not just by Hemingway himself but rather by the women in his life, and in particular, bringing forth their stories from behind his rather large and imposing shadow. The Hemingway in McLain’s books is larger than life, strong and brilliant enough that we can understand how women could fall in love with him, yet soon revealing the hot temper and (for lack of a better word) self-centred asshole behaviour that makes them eventually leave him.
Love and Ruin is about Martha Gellhorn, a wartime correspondent and badass writer in her own right, who happens to be Hemingway’s third wife. McLain’s respect and admiration for Gellhorn shines through loud and clear in this novel. We see how pioneering a figure Gellhorn was, fighting her way up the ranks to be taken as seriously as her male counterparts. I particularly loved how she ended up being one of very few journalists — and the only woman — at D-Day because of a twist of poetic justice — Hemingway and other male journalists were stranded at a spot that had earlier seemed more promising for a scoop.
The novel focuses mostly on Gellhorn’s journalism career and tumultuous relationship with Hemingway, but it was Gellhorn the novelist whom I found especially compelling. I loved the section where Gellhorn and Hemingway lived together and were working on their respective novels, but while Hemingway’s novel flowed easily, Gellhorn found herself struggling to write hers. I loved how McLain portrayed Gellhorn’s fear that her own writing would get subsumed by the shadow of Hemingway’s success, and how while both of them are talented and have very strong personalities, it’s hard to be a good writer living with a great one. This isn’t a knock on Gellhorn’s talent, but rather an acknowledgement that the book Hemingway was working on turns out to be the pinnacle of his already illustrious career, and I related so hard to Gellhorn’s insecurity about her own work.
In the book, Gellhorn’s novels get criticised for the journalistic objectivity of her writing style, and ironically, it’s this same vocal restraint that kept me from being fully in love with Love and Ruin. To McLain’s credit, the narrative voice reminds me somewhat of Hemingway’s writing (I’ve never read Gellhorn’s work and so can’t compare), and her descriptions of the settings and the war feel true to life. It also slows the book down somewhat, and the book never quite swept me up emotionally. McLain also includes some sections in Hemingway’s voice, and they were okay, but for me, didn’t really add much to the novel.
Still, I love that this novel sheds light onto a historical figure who’s super kickass, but often overlooked in Hemingway’s wake. I’m also fascinated by Gellhorn’s story after she divorced Hemingway, which McLain talks about in the afterword. It’s high time we stop referring to Gellhorn as “one of Hemingway’s wives” and start referring to Hemingway as “one of Martha Gellhorn’s husbands.”
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.