Book Review ~ Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

isbn9780708898901-detailLove and Ruin tells the story of Martha Gellhorn, one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century, and her love affair with one of the century’s greatest authors, Ernest Hemingway.

The loves of Hemingway’s life are proving a rich mine for fiction; McLain herself wrote The Paris Wife about his first wife, Hadley Richardson (a book I haven’t read), and in 2014, Naomi Wood wrote Mrs Hemingway (which I have read). The reason seems to be that, apart from their tempestuous years as the wives of a difficult genius like Hemingway, all these women were remarkable people.

The Martha Gellhorn that we meet at the beginning of the novel is restless and unsettled, having written a novel that was poorly received, and eviscerated by her father. She’s looking for a cause, for something to be a part of, and when she runs into Hemingway, quite by accident in a Key West bar (where else?), her life takes a turn, and really begins. Not necessarily because she has met a man, but because meeting him is a catalyst. Gellhorn travels to Spain, to cover the Spanish Civil War, and becomes part of a group of Americans, including Hemingway, who are working there to help the Spanish people resist the fascist regime of General Franco.

McLain’s evocation of life in Spain, and later Cuba, then into wartorn Europe, feels extraordinarily real. The portrayal of areas ravaged by war and suffering was visceral and stark. Experiencing it through the narrative of Gellhorn, fictionalised though it is, was a great way for me to learn about a conflict (the Spanish Civil War) that I didn’t know too much about.

It must be hard, when writing about a woman who had a very famous husband, not to position her solely in terms of her relationship. Of course, Gellhorn’s marriage to Hemingway is important; it shaped a huge part of her life, and, you could argue, set her on a path that she might or might not have found for herself. But Martha Gellhorn was an accomplished, intelligent and brave woman, and McLain does an amazing job of showcasing this side of her character. I was left in awe at the sheer amount that Gellhorn achieved, and how gutsy she was. At times it was easy to forget that you were reading about a woman who actually did all of these things, who put herself into danger so she could report the truth; if this was a film you might be forgiven for thinking it was all a little too far-fetched, but these incredibly brave exploits seem to be the truth.

Hemingway is not reduced to a bit-player; his importance in Gellhorn’s life was too important. But McLain treads a very fine between making this a romance novel, and celebrating the achievements of Gellhorn herself. And of course, the best thing is that this is a great read. It’s written beautifully, and I didn’t want to put it down. I only knew about Martha Gellhorn from reading about her in relation to Ernest Hemingway, but Love and Ruin has made me determined to seek out more of her work.

Love and Ruin by Martha Gellhorn
Publication Date: 7th June 2018
Provided by publisher

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Book Review ~ Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

I’ve always loved modern historical fiction; the ability that some authors have to take real life people from the last 100 years and bring them to life just astounds me, and I have always found it a good way to spark my interest in a particular person or time period, leading me on to reading non-fiction on the subject.

That is exactly the case with Mrs. Hemingway. For all that I’m a former student of American Literature, I’ve read very little Hemingway. I studied The Sun Also Rises at university, and enjoyed it up to a point, but I haven’t ever really felt any overwhelming urge to read any more of his work. I’ve also never really read much about him as a man; I knew he had been married multiple times, and I knew the story of one of his wives losing a case full of his work, but other than that, I went into Mrs. Hemingway in the dark about this great novelist’s private life.

Naomi Wood dedicates a section to each of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives; starting with Hadley, onto Fife, Martha and Mary. It would have been easy to separate these four stories out, telling them from when they first met Hemingway through to the end of their marriage, but Wood resists this temptation. Instead, each section starts at the end of the marriage, and at various points flashes back to the first point of meeting. Hemingway’s marriages weren’t independent of each other; each relationship (aside from his first) began as an extra marital affair. There are no gaps between them; from the moment he starts a relationship with Hadley, until his death forty years later, he is never alone.

The women are written beautifully, Wood’s writing is just wonderful, and these four intelligent, creative and fantastic women come alive through her words. We see how they lose themselves to this man who treated them badly; the three latter women watch him treat the incumbent wife dreadfully, and yet still feel surprised and betrayed when they do the same to them.

Martha is their fifth guest at the table: invisible and mute, but loud as hell.

Each woman is distinctive, having her own voice, ambitions and character, and yet they all have the same flaw. They are all unable to resist the spell that Ernest Hemingway casts over them, and it’s fascinating to watch them fall in love, made to feel so special by this man, only to wonder where their dignity has gone as they battle to keep him.

I also very much enjoyed the cameos by the celebrities of the era; Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Sara and Murphy, Sylvia Beach, Pablo Picasso. It made me want to read much more about the ex-pat community in Paris in the 1920s, and I’ve already added a number of books to my list!

Mrs. Hemingway is a work of fiction, with Naomi Wood making sure that the reader knows that it was born out of her imagination. She has borrowed these women from literary history and brought them to life beautifully. This was a library book, but I can see myself purchasing it so I can read it again in the future.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
First published: February 2014
ISBN: 9781447226864
Library Book