Ever since I became embroiled in what turned out to be fictional biography (and turned into In the Blink of an Eye), I’ve been fascinated by how different authors approach this genre. I was therefore delighted to accept a review copy of Love and Ruin by Paula McLain, the story of American journalist Martha Gellhorn and her marriage to Ernest Hemingway.
The book has a slightly stuttering start as we see Franco taking power when Martha is twenty seven, then dive back to her early life. As the child of well-off, caring parents who are also ambitious on her behalf, she has a troubled relationship with her father but it is after his death that she has a chance encounter in Florida with Ernest Hemingway. Here I had to remind myself – ironically in view of Gellhorn’s problems with Hemingway’s celebrity status – that she and not he was the focus of the book. But by the time Martha sets off for Spain in Part 2, I was becoming attuned to her voice and increasingly happy to be in her perceptive company and watch her relationship with Hemingway unfold and disintegrate against the backdrop of conflict and destruction in Europe and finally the world as a whole.
Their affair (Hemingway was still married to his second wife) was stormy from the outset, tested by his charismatic but complex character and her need for independence and self-fulfilment (both innate and encouraged by her mother). Martha initially rejects the advances of the man she sees as a mentor and friend and there is always a sense that their affair is both inevitable and doomed. Later she is the one who longs for a permanent home where they can work together and she briefly achieves her dream at their ranch house in Cuba. But when after his divorce marriage becomes possible, it is perhaps too late. Although desperately fond of Ernest’s sons, Martha seems to have lost what hold she had over her husband. The enormous success of For Whom the Bell Tolls coupled with Hemingway’s need for boys-own adventuring drives a wedge between them. Martha is drawn back to her work of war-reporting and an absence so long Hemingway regards it as desertion. Their separation becomes as inevitable as the conflagrations taking place in Europe, their fate apparently sealed in a climactic scene where Martha has claimed a place on the beaches of Normandy, the only woman among a hundred thousand men, while Hemingway is corralled elsewhere with other less determined reporters.
There’s always a danger of fictional biography toppling over into pure narrative and and I liked Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway because it offered a reflective i.e. to me novelistic account of Hemingway’s marriages. By contrast Love and Ruin brings us a huge sweep of history, but in a compellingly readable way and that is perhaps its greatest achievement. Martha’s instinct for the personal stories of war taught me a lot about the individual conflicts that led to World War 2 in Spain and Finland as well as the scale of its ultimate tragedies; from the bodies crowding the English Channel on D-Day to tales brought back from the concentration camps, all in the uniquely personal voice which McLain has found for her heroine. The enduring image of the book is contained in a Basque love-song about a bird who needs to be set free, encapsulating the eternal struggle of women to find their place in their relationships and in society as a whole.
Before I read Love and Ruin I knew Martha Gellhorn only as a name. Meeting her in these pages has been an absolute pleasure and given me new insight into her life and times.
My thanks to Little Brown for providing a review copy.