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


The Witch Elm Worthwhile but not a Tana French Gem

The Witch Elm (2108)
By Tana French
Penguin/Random House, 528 pages.

Toby Hennessy has it all: education, supportive parents, charm, good looks, a cool PR job with an avant-garde Dublin art gallery, snarky BFFs, and a sweet girlfriend named Melissa who adores him. He's an only child, but his first cousins Susannah and Leon are like siblings to him. Maybe. Everyone loves Toby. Maybe. But one night he is beaten by burglars and suffers some pretty major physical injuries, including a concussion that leaves big memory gaps. Doctors tell him that he'll recover most of his memory. Maybe.

The Witch Elm is about lots of maybes, as in possible scenarios based upon what is remembered and forgotten. One thing that's for sure is that Toby isn't going to work soon. But being the lucky guy he is, he can get away from the bad vibes of his burgled apartment by retreating to Ivy Hall, a grand-if-dowdy suburban family home occupied by his beloved uncle Hugo. Hugo is the prototype of an eccentric bachelor, and he certainly indulged Toby, Su, and Leon as kids and adolescents. The sad note is that Hugo is dying of cancer, so Toby and Melissa settle in to help him, mostly with meals and his genealogy studies as he's a resourceful old coot otherwise.

Things get hairy when one of Su's kids finds a human skull while climbing in the giant wych elm* in the walled-in yard. Detectives soon discover an entire skeleton inside a hollow section of the tree. No such luck that it's ancient; it belongs to an old friend of Toby's named Dominic. How can that be? Dominic allegedly committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea a decade earlier, and Toby went to his memorial service. What ensues is like Edgar Allen Poe's "The Telltale Heart" crossed with The Girl on the Train.

Tana French is (rightly) famous for her Irish detective novels, but The Witch Elm focuses on those caught up in the middle of what might be a murder investigation. Toby's memory is muddled, but he remembers liking Dominic, though they weren't "friend friends," as he relates to investigator Mike Rafferty. He was just another spirited guy in the pack of young adults who hung out at Hugo's house. Except Toby's benign view of Dominic doesn't match that of Su, Leon, Toby's friends, or others who all say he was an absolute monster. How can Toby's memory be so different? Was he oblivious? Is his concussion rearranging reality? Or is it PTSD for his own misdeeds? Rafferty regards Toby as a suspect, but he's pretty sure he could never do anything like this. But there are those memory gaps…. Maybe he should consider that he is a murderer.

The Witch Elm is loosely based on a real (unsolved) case from England in 1944, but it's really a mind game novel. What it does well is precisely what Poe did: put us inside the terrified mind of a suspect. It is not, however, up to the quality of Ms. French's prior novels. In my view, she tried too hard to write a book relevant to #MeToo sensibilities. It may even be a backdoor slam on men. I don't know about Irish law, but in the United States, the any charges secured by of her hawkshaw Rafferty would be tossed as entrapment. Rafferty comes off as a Machiavellian bully who force-fits his inferences, but most of her male characters are loutish and crude.

The last quarter of the book seems a parallel force-fit. Melissa seems too to be true, as if French was using her as an archetype for female goodness. I give French credit for tossing a curve that I did not anticipate, but that twist ultimately rests upon acceptance of gender essentialism that I found more troubling than a skeleton in a tree.

The good news is that even a lackluster Tana French novel is smart, lively, provocative, and well paced. Like several of her other books, French probes the darker side of privilege to remind us that the label "lucky" is one too cavalierly applied. Nonetheless, The Witch Elm is a bit like its namesake tree–a rarity. In this case, it's a novel that's merely okay rather than spectacular.

Rob Weir

* The witch elm–also called a Scots elm–has nothing to do with black magic. The Old English word wych or wice means flexible in a springy sort of way. French uses it to suggest memory is elastic. 


Tattooist of Auschwitz a Great Tale/Middling Novel

By Heather Morris
HarperCollins, 288 pages.

Heather Morris has written a novel about one of the most improbable love stories imaginable. Ludwig "Lale" Sokolov fell in love with Gita Furman at first sight. That's an old story, but Lale was tattooing Gita the time. Okay, so maybe that's a modern love story, but this one begins in 1942 and Lale, a Slovakian Jew, was a t├Ątowierer at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the very worst of the Nazi concentration/death camps. He was the one who burned Gita's camp number into her arm.

Morris tells her tale from Lale's point of view. He, like the reader, is aware that survival in such a house of horrors is something of a crapshoot, but he does his best to improve his odds. The Nazis find him useful, as he is multilingual. As it transpires, he's also crafty. Once he gains access to some of the camp's areas off-limits to most prisoners, he is able to secret away jewels. These he trades with Polish day workers for all manner of goods, including food. He is so good at this that even a few SS guards call upon him to procure items. He also cultivates friendships with the Roma housed in Auschwitz, and with many of the some 300,000 Hungarian Jews that passed through. In today's terms, we might call Lale a "fixer" who makes sure that Gita, her friends, and as many others as possible don't starve or succumb to diseases. He also carries on a carnal love affair with Gita in the camp, a very dangerous thing indeed. He vows they will marry when they leave the camp, a pledge Gita and almost everyone else finds unlikely. To stay alive, Lale must walk a tightrope between doing just enough for others so that they know him to be a good person and don't expose him, yet not so much that his smuggling is exposed. He also needs to avoid the monstrous Dr. Joseph Mengele as much as he possibly can and play a subservient role when he cannot.

Although the Lale/Gita love story is compelling, in many ways Lale's networks are more so.  World War II narratives often shortchange the Roma (aka/ "gypsies," a now problematic term), but some 23,000 perished during the war, as did an estimated 2 million non-Jewish Poles. Morris gives us a sense of how each group was treated in the camp. To some extent, the Nazis were less brutal to the educated Lale than to Roma and Poles. To be blunt about it, a good t├Ątowierer was harder to replace, though Mengele did castrate one of Lale's colleagues. We also gain insight into how camp networks developed and functioned.

This is not Hogan's Heroes, though. It's not even Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful. Auschwitz is presented as it was: a den of monstrosity and torture. One of the raps against the novel is that Morris did not make Auschwitz-Birkenau worse than she did. I'd call that fair criticism. In fact, it would be easy to read this novel and dismiss it as too rosy, a love-conquers-all tale that just happens to be set in Auschwitz. Except…

Except that it's actually a memoir/novel hybrid. It is based on interviews Morris held with Ludwig "Lale" Eisenberg, the model for Sokolov. She spoke with him numerous times before his death in 2006, and he told her of things of which he had never spoken until after Gita's death in 2003. Why the delay? More than a million people died at Auschwitz. It was the very epicenter of Hitler's "Final Solution" and the site where nearly a tenth of all wartime Jewish casualties occurred. Holocaust scholars speak of "survivor's guilt," a form of PTSD that affected those lucky enough to be liberated. In Eisenberg's case, he also feared being seen as a collaborator on par with the hated kapo, Jews who were the equivalent of slave drivers who did a lot of the Nazis' dirty work in exchange for privileges such as better food and housing. Some would say Eisenberg was on that level.

It is easy to find factual flaws in Morris's novel. One scene has him smuggling penicillin to save Gita and that almost certainly could not have occurred. There are numerous other details that Holocaust experts call into question. I'll leave it to them to debate whether these were misremembered 50+ years later or were deliberately altered by Eisenberg. As a novelist, Morris should be given a degree of artistic license. Her goal, after all, is to make the reader care about her characters. She certainly does that with Lale, though Gita is less developed and often comes across as a damsel-in-distress awaiting rescue. That too may be correct, but many of Morris' female characters lack agency. In fact, sometimes it seems as if the only people in the camp who had free will (as opposed to acting with brute force) were Mengele and Lale.

It's problematic for any reviewer to criticize a book on the Holocaust. Let me simply say that I can't tell you how much of this novel is factual and how much is the product of Morris' imagination. I can say, though, that The Tattooist of Auschwitz began life as a screenplay that didn't fly. Morris then launched a Kickstarter campaign that helped her convert it into a novel. It is her first work of fiction. In that regard, the book is better imagined than written, and even then the arc is episodic rather than linear. Much of the prose is flat in the way that screenplays set scenes and it's up to the actors to infuse the dialogue with drama and color. In this case, the reader is called upon to inhabit the words.

My ultimate take is that this is a tremendous story that is competently but prosaically told. It will inform you and make you imagine what you would do under similar circumstances. I won't say there is much literary magic sprinkled upon the pages, but there's enough to keep us turning them.

Rob Weir