I know very little about Ernest Hemingway, bar some simple facts such as his love for cats, drinking and his involvement during the Spanish civil war, (Probably, like most people I read The Old Man and the Sea in my early teens). Thus when finding out that Love & Ruin is about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, my interest piqued.
Love & Ruin is essentially about Gellhorn’s relationship with Hemingway. Us readers get a bit of backstory but the book itself really starts when Gellhorn meets Hemingway for the first time at a bar and then joins him during the Spanish civil war as a journalist. After meeting secretly, the couple married in 1940 until 1945 when Gellhorn left Hemmingway.
On a deeper level us readers get a portrait of a person who started out as a fan and then took it to another level as through persistence. There is speculation on whether Gellhorn really loved Hemingway (and vice versa) but McLain makes it clear that it was obvious that love was present.
The other part of the relationship that is given attention is the tension that can exist between two writers. At the time of the Love & Ruin, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls has just been published and Gellhorn had published one novel, a collection of short stories and was becoming a well renowned journalist, albeit having trouble to get her novels published. At first there’s the impression that there’s a power struggle. At one point of the book Hemingway suggests that Gellhorn should use her married surname in order to make things easier but she refuses. This, for me, was a crucial element of the book as it displays Gellhorn’s strength and her perseverance not to give up. Eventually Gellhorn’s journalistic success was one of the factors that made her leave Hemingway as he hijacked her post in the magazine she was writing for.
McLain stuffs a lot of biographical and historical detail, kudos for the cat passages and Gellhorn’s attempts to neuter them, to Hemingway’s disgust (which could symbolise that of the marriage was castrated and made ‘powerless’) in this book and yet it flows nicely without feeling exhausted, which I enjoyed. Every chapter is only a couple of pages long yet by the time I was finished I felt like I had become an expert on this topic. Besides the relationship, there’s the historical context which is Franco’s Spain, China during the second world war, pre war Paris, wartime US, post war London and Hemingway’s second home, Cuba and all lovingly described.
What struck me about Love & Ruin was Mclain’s treatment of both Gellhorn and Hemingway, which is fair. Despite Hemingway’s boorish behaviour towards the end of the relationship, he is not portrayed as a monster. Neither is Gellhorn portrayed as a schemer. There is a lot of respect between both protagonists, also I was glad that the book did not descend into melodrama and yet this is neither cold documentation. There’s a great balance.
Love & Ruin is a perfect book if one has no historical knowledge of Hemingway or Gellhorn (as was in my case) and doesn’t want a non fiction account. Although I have said that the book is a quick read, it goes into complexity of how society treats women writers, something which is still a hot topic today.
Manny thanks to Little Brown for providing me with a copy of Love & Ruin and allowing me to take part in this blog tour.