Love and Ruin Worthwhile, but Flat

By Paula McLain
Penguin Random House, 432 pages

Novelist Paula McLain has been on a quest to write about intrepid women. For Circling the Sun, her subject was Beryl Markham; in The Paris Wife, it was Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife (1921-27), who introduced the then little-known writer to important literary figures. Love and Ruin could be considered a sequel to Love and Ruin, except Hemingway had a second marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer (1927-40) before he hooked up with Martha Gellhorn, his third wife (1940-45) and the main subject of McLain’s latest novel.

 Hemingway was a difficult man: reckless, egoistic, bullying, and demanding. He was sometimes referred to as a man’s man and was most comfortable in the company of fawning comrades. He was also insecure in many ways and whenever he shed one wife, he quickly remarried. (When he divorced Gellhorn in 1945, he married correspondent Mary Welsh the next year and stayed with her until his suicide in 1961.)

McLain’s take on “Marty” Gellhorn is that “Papa” Hemingway didn’t like competition! He was already famous when he met Gellhorn in 1937 and convinced her to travel to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War. This took some finagling, as Gellhorn was a relative unknown at the time. She soon proved her mettle as correspondent and mistress. Both she and Hemingway ran on adrenaline, and one might conclude that in Hemingway’s case, a mistress fit him better. Although Hemingway initially encouraged Gellhorn’s writing, he tried to make her into a doting wife who’d play hostess at his Finca Vigia homestead in Cuba, where he entertained drinking buddies and hangers-on. In McLain’s telling, Gellhorn simply wasn’t cut from domestic cloth. Although she was with Hemingway when he completed his masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls, he became increasingly jealous of Gellhorn’s assignments during World War II. (He was also an alcoholic and irresponsible with money.)

Gellhorn is the heroine of Love and Ruin, but an imperfect one. It took her a few years to realize that she could not have it all: marriage, career, domesticity, and respect. We see her struggle to be taken seriously on her own terms, not as Ernest Hemingway’s wife. McLain's Gellhorn seesaws between conformity in one moment and a lioness on the hunt for what she wants the next. This made her as complicated and contradictory as Hemingway. It also made it impossible to sustain her marriage. For his part, it’s hard to determine which flowed more freely in Hemingway, testosterone or booze. Like Gellhorn, McLain shows him as a volatile mix of fragility and fierce independence. Mostly, though, Hemingway’s ego only allowed women to shine in his reflected glow.

McLain’s sprawling novel takes us from Key West and Cuba to Madrid, Finland, and Germany. In some ways, it’s about two people seeking unconditional love who spend much of their time setting conditions. The relationship only worked when Papa and Marty were in the midst of danger and on the move. The title says it all: love and ruin. No one will ever write a book about either figure titled Stasis and Happiness.

I am a big fan of McLain’s novels and love the idea that she puts strong women at the center of her tales. Yet despite the fact that Love and Ruin features two powerful and fascinating characters, it’s not up to McLain’s usual standards. It’s a good book and worth a read, but it feels flat in ways that are hard to describe. Perhaps the very thought of a sustainable relationship between these two individuals is so absurd that that we feel what must happen long before McLain describes it. How does one explain abortive domesticity without taming two individuals whose very natures rebel against that ideal? Would we believe it were we treated to moments of mundane wedded bliss? McLain gives us a woman who ultimately refused to be either a goddess or a victim, but once we know this, the rest of the story is telegraphed.

I seldom feel this way about historical figures, but for once I favor a film over a novel. The 2012 movie Hemingway & Gellhorn–with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman in the title roles­–tells the same story as McLain’s book, but we have visuals to flesh out the details and provide a dramatic backdrop. I wouldn’t call Love and Ruin a misstep–McLain is too good a writer–but I did find it less than the sum of its parts.

Rob Weir

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