Book Review: Love and Ruin - Paula McLain

Love and Ruin - Paula McLain ****

Paula McLain has been in Hemingway wife territory before with her 2012 novel The Paris Wife. There was a very clear sense of purpose in that fictionalised look at Hemingway from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, his first wife, McLain bringing into light an important figure in the great writer's life, one too often left in the shadows. You couldn't say that Hadley deserved the same recognition as Hemingway of course or even that she had any significant input to one of the most important bodies of American literature, but the story of the role she played deserved to be highlighted all the same. Martha Gellhorn however is a different kind of 'Hemingway wife' altogether, and one who is very much her own person.

McLain chooses a good way of connecting the woman of The Paris Wife with the woman who will be the centre of Love and Ruin. Inspired by Lady Brett from The Sun Also Rises, like many of her generation and many of the generations that followed, Martha Gellhorn is shown to be a woman seeking independence and adventure, wanting to be in the thick of it. Although Paris in the 1920s always seems to have a certain glamour and excitement to it, there is plenty going on elsewhere in Europe and the wider in the 1930s for a young adventurous woman, and Gellhorn has seen enough in Germany in 1936 to be concerned about the rise of Adolf Hitler. She's still struggling to find her own voice as a writer however - and struggling to find a stable relationship - when she has a fateful meeting with Ernest Hemingway while on holiday with her family in Key West.

Encouraged by Hemingway to join him reporting on the Civil War in Spain, Gellhorn finds her voice as a war journalist, finds the confidence to finish her third novel, and finds a man she can settle down with, sharing a house with Hemingway in Cuba. For a while it almost feels like paradise, the only problem threatening to wreck it all is that Hemingway is still married to Pauline and has kids to be concerned about. There's also the coming war, which threatens to draw America back into the fray, and Gellhorn's first duty lies to her writing about people's lives caught up in it. When she accepts a commission from Colliers to report on Hitler's threatened invasion of Finland, she knows that she is taking a big risk, not only to her own life in a dangerous war zone, but it could have consequences on her own promising career as a writer and her relationship with a man who is used to doing all the dangerous running around, and the abandonment.

One of the challenges of writing about such matters - aside from the all-important autobiographical voice that has to be very assured and convincing - is that times have changed how we view such gender assignment of roles. How we look at Hemingway and Gellhorn now doesn't necessarily fit well with modern attitudes. When it comes to Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife, we could see a woman subservient to a great writer, but one whose personality and contribution provided another way of looking at the role of women in those times. Gellhorn, ironically, is celebrated for her writing, for her war correspondence at least, but by depicting 'Marty' almost solely in terms of being a Hemingway 'wife' - even for all her personal achievements - it does diminish her and put her into the shade of the great writer rather than step into the light out of his long shadow.

Perhaps that is just inevitable. Gellhorn's achievements are rightly celebrated, but isn't her name and fame almost inextricably linked with Hemingway? And isn't Hemingway just "Too dazzling. Too Hemingway", as McLain has Gellhorn observe? It's not even as if the author has made Hemingway the centre of the novel; he just seems so much larger than life that he assumes the role. Love and Ruin however is no Hemingway hagiography. He really is written as a secondary character to Gellhorn's first-person viewpoint and utterly humanised beyond the self-aggrandising image he portrayed of himself, but somehow - although maybe it's just me - he can't help but be a huge gravitational force that draws people into his orbit. That's the impression that you have, despite the best efforts of the author, and despite her fine portrayal of Martha Gellhorn. There's no question that McLain gets inside her mind, identifies her own distinctive qualities and bravery, and even the story of her romance with Hemingway shows her as very much knowing her own mind, or if not always knowing, at least trusting her own instincts rather than let someone else determine them.

And yet, somehow - whether it's the force of Hemingway or perhaps just something to do with the period they lived in - Hemingway looms largest. Even as she goes to report on the war in Finland, Gellhorn refuses to let a sulking Hemingway come to join her in the danger zone, not because she wants to assert her own presence, but because she believes that the Spanish novel that Hemingway is writing (For Whom The Bell Tolls) is not only more important than her writing about the war, but more important even than the war; the war will end, but Hemingway will endure. Whether Gellhorn really believed this or it is a conjecture on the part of the author, it is a telling observation, but also one that has to be considered for whether it still holds true. What is certainly true is that Paula McLain has a remarkable feel for the period and the attitudes, but also for character, doing justice not just to Gellhorn, but allowing Hemingway to remain completely Hemingway.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain is published by Fleet on the 7th June 2018.

Amazon UK - Love and Ruin

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