Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain, tells the story of the few years in Martha Gellhorn’s long life when she met Ernest Hemingway, fell in love with him, and was briefly married to him. McLain wrote about Hemingway’s first wife in her previous novel, The Paris Wife. Gellhorn was his third wife and possibly the one with whom he was most emotionally entwined. Ultimately, as I understand it from reading this novel, the marriage didn’t work because of both of their temperaments. Hellman was a writer of stories first, a journalist second, and lastly, a wife. She needed the freedom to travel the world to find her stories, whereas Hemingway needed a wife who would be beside him, literally beside him, wherever he went and whatever he did. In other words, both of them needed to be allowed to be themselves, and these needs clashed.
It is a common problem in relationships these days, but during World War II, when the story takes place, it was anything but common. Gellhorn was a strikingly unusual woman for her time, and it is a pleasure to read about her determination to remain true to her perception of herself, no matter what it costs her. And it cost her dearly. The love she felt for Hemingway was enormous, as was his love for her. Still, the relationship ended in shambles.
In a sense, the love story is second to the story of World War II. The book starts with Franco’s rise and the Spanish civil war. I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t known much about Franco before reading this book, so I was grateful for the history lesson. Gellhorn and Hemingway’s romance flowered while the bombs fell as they both were in Spain to write stories about the war. The scenes of their attraction in the midst of war were some of the strongest in the book.
The war moves on, as does the romance. By the time the war is ending, so is their relationship.
None of this is new. Hemingway’s life has been painstakingly examined by any number of authors. We know from the beginning that the relationship was doomed, but that doesn’t matter. The writing in the book is flawless. It is by far McLain’s most absorbing, most thrilling writing. The book is written in first person from Gellhorn’s point of view, and I found myself believing that McLain had stepped inside Gellhorn’s mind and was channeling her. Although Gellhorn lived to be 89 and wrote numerous books and articles, I haven’t read any of them. Truthfully, I can’t imagine that she could possibly have been as good a writer as McLain is. Even if she was, I feel sure she would have been proud of this biographical novel.