Love and Ruin

Written by Paula McLain
Review by Kate Braithwaite

In Love and Ruin, Paula McLain returns to ground she has already covered very successfully in The Paris Wife: the life and loves of Ernest Hemingway. This time around, she gives us Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, the only one who leaves him.

But Love and Ruin is wholly Gellhorn’s story, and she is a heroine who thoroughly deserves her own space and voice. Independent, restless, ambitious and talented, Gellhorn is a match for Hemingway in many ways. The novel charts her life and career from 1936 to 1944, a tumultuous time for Europe and America. Gellhorn and Hemingway first meet in Key West when she is on vacation there with her mother and brother, and their initial relationship is a blend of friendship and patronage. Hemingway encourages Gellhorn, a struggling writer nine years his junior, to join a band of writers and journalists covering the Spanish Civil War, and the two fall in love in war-torn Madrid. Although a much less experienced writer, Gellhorn still believes herself to be his equal; but when they settle into life together in Cuba, and Hemingway leaps to literary super-stardom with the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the delicate balance of their relationship shifts.

This novel is a beautiful story of love and loss. McLain has magically immersed herself into Gellhorn’s character and given voice to her struggle for success and her own professional identity. As well as being a love story, this is also an excellent portrayal of a dramatic period of history, full of evocative description. Furthermore, it is a book, written by a talented writer, McLain, about two other talented writers, busy writing. The passages where Gellhorn and Hemingway are writing and/or struggling to write, are fascinating to read.