Martha Gellhorn is an inspired subject for a novel. One of the most legendary war correspondents of the 20th century, she reported on every major conflict during that time, from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam. At 81, an age when most people are ready to put their feet up, she covered the US invasion of Panama.
I’ve always been fascinated by the intrepid Gellhorn’s story – and by her relationship with Ernest Hemingway – so I was desperate to read Love and Ruin, Paula McLain’s new book based on her life. But at the same time, I couldn’t quite work out how McLain was going to turn Gellhorn’s story into a novel.
I needn’t have worried. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, Love and Ruin is an exhilarating read. The novel covers the years from 1936, when Gellhorn met Hemingway by chance in a Florida bar and then travelled to Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War, to 1944, when their relationship splintered. I was gripped by Gellhorn’s story, particularly her time in Spain and her determination to step out of the brilliant Hemingway’s shadow and make a name for herself. Mostly written in the first person, the novel gives a real sense of her anxiety about getting involved with a man of Hemingway’s stature, let alone the fact that he was on his second marriage (he had four in total) when they met.
“… he was too famous, too far along in his own career, too sure of what he wanted,” writes McLain. “He was also too married, too dug into the life he’d built in Key West. Too driven, too dazzling. Too Hemingway.”
McLain offers a fascinating insight into the pair’s stormy marriage, their rivalry and their writing. As Gellhorn says in the novel: “Real writing, I was beginning to realise, was more like laying bricks than waiting for lightning to strike. It was painstaking. It was manual labour. And sometimes, sometimes if you kept putting the bricks down and let your hands just go on bleeding, and didn’t look up and didn’t stop for anything, the lightning came.”
While the novel is mainly written from Gellhorn’s perspective, McLain intersperses this with chapters from Hemingway’s standpoint. Far from interrupting the flow, these make fascinating insights, detailing his inner turmoil, heavy drinking and destructive personality.
Some of the themes are decidedly modern, especially Gellhorn’s dilemma about work. As Hemingway becomes more and more successful, should she surrender to the demands of a domestic lifestyle (of course not) or forge her own way as a writer? Even if you don’t know much about Gellhorn, you can probably guess the answer.
This is the first novel I’ve read by McLain but I’m now looking forward to searching out her earlier books, including The Paris Wife, about Hemingway and his first wife Hadley, and Circling the Sun, about the record-breaking aviator Beryl Markham. I’ll report back.
Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (Fleet, £14.99)