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.