I adore Love and Ruin by Paula McLain. She wrote Martha Gellhorn so well, I truly felt like I was along for the ride with Gellhorn. It’s an exceptional book that features love and loss but is really about Gellhorn’s dreams and her fearless passion for writing.
While I enjoy tales about Ernest Hemingway, there’s always a bit of concern if he will overpower a story. He’s a larger than life figure, some of the truths in his life seem fictional. But in McLain’s previous work The Paris Wife and now Love and Ruin, McLain does an admirable job of focusing on the women in his life and he’s a secondary character. While his actions impact their lives, the stories still felt like theirs.
Gellhorn the writer
Gellhorn is a fiercely independent, ambitious young woman who would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century. She paved the way for female reporters who followed and is an inspiration to countless people and probably even more so when they read this book. I felt such a connection to Gellhorn and her need to have a voice and her writing taken seriously. In the beginning of the novel, all she wants to do is write something that matters, however, it’s not going the way she envisions. Until a fateful encounter with Hemingway at a bar in Key West changes her direction. He suggests she come to Spain and report on the Spanish Civil War with him. Not thinking about anything else but her career, her love for travel and an admiration for Hemingway’s work, she eventually secures a press pass and joins him there.
She witnesses horrible war atrocities that at first stuns her but she then realizes she must write about the war to give a voice to those who don’t have one. I love the scenes that focused purely on her writing.
A note about the war coverage, McLain does not shy away from the horrors of war so there is disturbing content in there. It’s hard to read at times but it’s important because while it’s historical fiction, it’s still based on fact. And war is cruel. Again, this is why the world needs reporters like Gellhorn, to tell us the truth of what’s happening elsewhere.
Beyond the Spanish Civil War, there’s also war coverage on WWII with the very interesting portion of when Gellhorn went to Western Europe to cover the war. In 1944, she stowed away on a hospital ship to report on the D-Day landings. Incredible, right?
I first focus on Gellhorn the writer because it’s clear that’s what she wanted to be known for instead of being Hemingway’s wife. In the book, Hemingway is a success, with his greatest acclaim to come. Gellhorn looks up to him so much as a writer and at first, that’s all he is to her — an inspiration. But she finds herself falling for him among the chaos of the war.
Gellhorn was so independent, I didn’t want her with Hemingway, even though that’s what played out in real life. She was too good for him. He was not an easy man to be with by any stretch of the imagination with his anger and alcoholism. But I do think they bonded over writing and that’s what made a difference in their relationship, for a while at least. Still, it’s not a typical romance, it’s very volatile. And when Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls becomes a runaway hit, his writing fame challenges Gellhorn’s perspective of what she really wants.
Beyond writing, the romance and the wars, there’s vivid details about Cuba when they lived there for a short time and a trip to China. Also, Gellhorn was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and there’s some interesting details about that and life in the White House at that time.
Love and Ruin is part romance, an epic tale of war but in the end, about a woman who will stop at nothing to find her own voice.
It’s a great one for book clubs with lots to discuss.