Love and Ruin, Paula McLain, review

Published:  01:08 AM, 08 July 2018

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway make for captivating company in this new novel

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway make for captivating company in this new novel

Drawing on memoirs and letters, it's fascinating to be taken back to the beginning of this relationship and Gellhorn's own illustrious careerPaula McLain takes the turbulent relationship between Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway as the subject of her new novel. 

The story opens in 1936: Gellhorn is 27, back in the US after living in Paris, "trying to become a writer" and throwing herself "hard at experience".

She's dealing with the opposite poles of mourning - her father recently died - and success - her second novel, The Trouble I've Seen, is making waves where her debut didn't. One afternoon, searching out icy cold daiquiris during a family holiday to Key West, she meets her "idol", Ernest Hemingway. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, she walks into his, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Drawing on Gellhorn's own memoirs and letters, McLain is fleshing out a story that's already familiar, but it's fascinating to be taken back to the beginning of both this relationship and Gellhorn's own illustrious career.

Although already an adventurer, the woman we meet here hasn't yet become the famous, fearless - and often difficult - war correspondent we associate with the name Martha Gellhorn today.

McLain reveals another side to her: the woman who poured her energy into creating an idyllic "foxhole" in Hemingway's beloved Cuba, a home for the two of them where they could write side by side, and who loved his boys as if they were her own.

As in McLain's previous novel - the bestselling The Paris Wife, which told the story of Hemingway's first marriage,to Hadley Richardson, and their life together in the French capital in the 1920s - the great writer is again seen through the eyes of his partner. 

Though whereas Hadley was fighting to keep her man, this time round it's Gellhorn's own agency that's at stake. "I would be his wife first, and myself only if I fought constantly to make it so," she realises.

Gellhorn loves her husband dearly, but she refuses to sacrifice her own dreams - "My ambition - that seemed like the dirtiest word of all" - in order to appease his overbearing ego. Trapped on all sides, there is "no stepping out of his shadow." Her prose is continually compared to his, and she's forced to compete with him, "elbow to elbow, and pen to pen".

In the same way that McLain evoked so well the booze-soaked parties and soirées of Paris's lost generation, here she breathes life - and death - into the theatres of some of the 20th century's most famous conflicts. 

She goes from the "ghost city" that is Madrid during the Spanish Civil War to Finland's Winter War, where the sound of artillery fire is "swallowed by a blizzard", to the "horror and chaos" of Omaha Beach on D-Day, where Gellhorn was famously the first journalist, "male or female, to make it there and report back".Love and Ruin makes for captivating reading, and Gellhorn's a most worthy subject for McLain's skilful portraiture.'Love and Ruin' is published by Fleet

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