A review of Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Love and Ruin
by Paula McLain
Penguin Random House
May 2018, ISBN:978-0-385-69178-9, 544 Pages

Paula McLain has become famous for writing historical novels centring on remarkable women. The American journalist Martha Gellhorn, the protagonist of Love and Ruin was an outstanding war correspondent at a time when few women had such careers. She was also an accomplished novelist and non-fiction author. Valuing her freedom from traditional women’s roles, she once said that she didn’t want to be a footnote in someone else’s life.

Gellhorn went to trouble spots (Spain in 1937, China in 1940-1 and Omaha Beach, Normandy during the 1945 Allied invasion) not only because she liked action and not just because these situations provided gripping stories to write. She also hoped to do good in the world and right some wrongs with her pen. In 1934 she was hired by the Federal Emergency Relief Organization to travel in the United States, observing families in need and writing her observations and impressions for the federal government. This research led her to write The Trouble I’ve Seen, a searing picture of the plight of Americans in abject poverty during the Great Depression.  Its success was a key breakthrough in her career.

Unlike Beryl Markham, the heroine of McLain’s second novel,Circling the Sun, Martha Gellhorn came from a supportive, harmonious family. Martha and her three brothers grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, their parents an obstetrician and a homemaker involved in feminist organizations. Martha’s mother in particular encouraged her to find her wings and make wise choices.

Beryl Markham, in contrast, came from a troubled background, had seemingly endless affairs, loved big game hunters who slaughtered wildlife in colonial Kenya, and went through many ups and downs as a horse trainer before she became an aviator. Though interesting, she was hardly an inspiration for young women planning their future.

McLain’s first novel, The Paris Wife, had a heroine who was too tame and passive for some tastes.  Gentle Hadley Richardson fell in love with Ernest Hemingway when he was a young, struggling writer, and shared the moveable feast of Paris with him, until he left her for their friend Pauline Pfeiffer.  Readers who found Hadley unappealingly naive and passive will find plenty of gumption and ambition in Martha Gellhorn.

Like most young people of her generation, Martha Gellhorn admired Hemingway’s novels, but never imagined that she would ever meet the great writer, let alone marry him. At Christmas 1936, she, her mother and younger brother were on holiday in Key West, Florida, where they happened to walk into the bar where he was hanging out. Recognizing him from his photos, she was in awe of meeting him. He noticed her golden hair and long legs and struck up a conversation, then invited her and her family to dinner at his home with Pauline. Both praised The Trouble I’ve Seen. Hemingway was soon leaving for Spain, where  General Franco’s forces were trying to overthrow the democratically elected liberal-leftist government. When Martha expressed an interest in the situation there, Hemingway promised to watch out for her if she got there.

Then he telephoned her when she was back in St. Louis, suggesting she come to New York where he and friends are raising money for an ambulance. Mrs. Gellhorn told her to be careful, but Martha insisted that he was her “idol”, nothing more, and that she only wanted to “soak in his light.” Hemingway didn’t assist Martha in getting to Spain, but once she got there, in the spring of 1937, they met. Both agreed that Spain was something larger than themselves and that everything was clearer there. Hemingway at first called her “daughter” (he was nine years her senior) but soon declared that he’d fallen in love with her.  Martha didn’t want to get romantically involved with him because he was “like a film star”, “too famous”, “too dazzling” and “too married”, but her resolution was soon broken.

Predictably, the imbalance between them became a problem. After a White House screening of This Spanish Earth, a film Hemingway was involved in, no less a person than Eleanor Roosevelt warned Martha to “keep her head about her” because Hemingway is “a complicated man.” Word of their affair leaked out, but although Pauline confronted him, they did not divorce immediately. After a year in Europe writing about the rise of Hitler, Martha joined Ernest in Cuba on his invitation.

Their Cuba years began as “paradise”. She found and renovated a beautiful rural property, the Finca, where they settled in, he to start the novel which became For Whom the Bell Tolls, and she to work on a novel of her own. Her mother was pleased for them but reminded Martha that Hemingway had been “through two wives” already and that he’d loved them in the beginning, too. For a while they were happy, entertaining his three sons on their vacations, sailing on the Pilar, and heading west in the fall.

Soon red flags appeared. In 1939, when Martha had the opportunity to cover the Russian invasion of Finland for Colliersmagazine, Ernest complained about being left alone. On her return she found that her latest book was getting attention only because of her relationship with him. Subsequently, another of her books was said to be too much in Hemingway’s style. She came to resent Hemingway’s suggestions, convinced that he’d forgotten what it was like to be in the early stages of a writing career:

      “To hold myself up and keep moving forward I had to do what felt right for me.

The huge success of For Whom the Bell Tolls turned Hemingway into a world-famous star. He was surrounded by friends and well-wishers sitting up all hours drinking. During their stay at the Barclay Hotel in New York shortly after their marriage, Martha found it impossible to work in a constant party mode, so, to get a break from him, she asked Colliersfor an assignment. When Hemingway found out that she was going to China, he assumed that he was going too. She hoped for his attention and support, but he also got an assignment and they went as competitors.

In China, Martha hired a guide and mingled with the people while Ernest sat in their hotel lobby, drinking and telling stories. On their visit to President and Madame Chiang Kai Shek, Chiang struck her as an “overlord whose only goal was to stay in power”, while Madame was a “jewel-encrusted viper.” She couldn’t say these things in her article, though, because China was the United States’s ally, and when she grumbled to Ernest he called her “naive.”

Back in Cuba, Ernest pressured her to have a child, but she no longer wanted one, finding it hard enough already to “fight for her work.” With a child, she would no longer be able to travel, but would have to stay home and “keep everything going” while Ernest went where he pleased.

Following the fanfare surrounding For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest fell into a slump, gaining weight, drinking and not writing. Then he approached U.S. Naval Intelligence and arranged to outfit the Pilar and assemble a crew to patrol the Cuban coast for submarines. Martha would like them both to be contributing to the war effort as journalists in Europe instead of him “playing spy” in the Caribbean.

In several stream of consciousness chapters, McLain presents Hemingway’s thoughts and feelings. He spoke of “hiding from himself“, of a “dark space thickening in his head”. “The trick was when things got bad, he knew, was to be very still, first in his body, and then in his mind.”Loss devastated him. Biographers have written about his mental heath, or lack of it, in medical terms, but McLain does not, because the novel is from Martha’s perspective and Martha didn’t know what was wrong with him nor what to do about it.

McLain shows the isolation and terror that often goes with being a writer but which can be overcome by working at one’s craft. Martha dealt with her anxieties in that way, and also by seeking out individuals in the crises she covered and speaking to them as friends. By finding moments of understanding with fellow human beings, she realized over and over again that “We weren’t strangers and we weren’t lost.” In contrast, Hemingway fought his demons by having a wife on call and a crowd to party with.

One of the funniest parts of the novel is about Martha’s return from a Caribbean assignment to find Ernest away and the house in a chaos of liquor bottles and cat accidents. The cat population had doubled during her absence. She hired a veterinarian to neuter all the males (a simpler procedure than spaying the females) and when Ernest returned he was furious, seeing it as a violation of their, and his, masculinity. He sits around drinking and glowering, and when Martha approaches him he growls, “Boise [one of the neutered cats] and I don’t like wimmens, so keep your distance.”

The final straw for Martha came when Ernest stole an assignment from her, leaving her jobless. She made her way to Europe anyway as a freelancer, exhibited great daring in covering a big story, and became famous.

In her Author’s Note, Paula McLain summarizes the rest of Gellhorn’s remarkable career and praises her as an inspiration. Although Love and Ruin is a first-rate historical novel, it might not have pleased Gellhorn, because, in a way, it reduces her to a footnote in Hemingway’s life. By focusing on 1936-1945, Gellhorn’s “Hemingway” years, McLain makes them seem the major experience of Gellhorn’s life, when in fact they were just a blip on the radar screen of Gellhorn’s eighty-nine year life span. Even so, Love and Ruin is a page-turner, a novel that’s hard to put down.

Paula McLain’s historical novels inspired Ruth Latta to write her novel, Grace in Love (Ottawa, Baico, 2018, info@baico.ca)